September 3, 2005
Opinion surveys in the Arab world reveal great dislike, even hatred, for the United States. But the surveys also reveal enormous ignorance of what is actually going on in America, and between the U.S. and the Arab world. For example, most Arabs believe that Jews comprise over ten percent of the U.S. population (its actually two percent), control nearly half of Congress (only six percent are Jewish), and most of the American economy (again, its under ten percent). Anti-Semitism has long been popular in the Arab world. During World War II, many Arabs openly sided with the Nazis. Not just because Arabs resented British and French colonial influence in the Arab world, but because the Arabs and Nazis had similar attitudes towards Jews. Arabs were also hostile to Christians, as were the Nazis. Note that millions of Arabs were Jewish or Christian, but the hostility from Moslems had been driving them out of Arab areas for generations.
However, the biggest information problem in the Arab world is the ignorance of the billions of dollars America has spent on economic, health and educational aid to them over the last half century. The total amount is closer to several hundred billion dollars, and it gets very little publicity. The reason is simple; good news doesnt sell. America isnt the only donor country with this problem. It happens to everyone. Moreover, most of the media in Arab countries is controlled by the local dictator or king, who prefers to downplay how dependent he is on charity from foreign infidels. In the last decade, the emergence of international, satellite based media (like al Jazeera), has not helped matters much. Anti-U.S. stories are so popular, even if they are based on fiction, that international networks have to get down in the gutter with everyone else if they want to prosper.
In the past, this lack of media appreciation for Americas good deeds was annoying. But now its murder. The hate America media diatribes convince young Arabs to become terrorists. OK, how do you change perceptions? Its difficult. The U.S. has started up their Arab language media outlets, and American diplomats are twisting arms in Arab countries to give American good deeds some media play. The twist is applied via the suggestion that the aid might as well be withdrawn, if the U.S. is just going to get bad mouthed. There are several other PR type efforts underway. This involves some pretty basic stuff like press releases, and especially video press releases (having your own video crews documenting American aid efforts.)
The problem is that you cannot reverse decades of bad press in a year or two. But the polls have shown a shift in attitudes in the past year, and the infowarriors are taking some of the credit.