US ads miss mark, Muslims say

America's image in the Muslim world slides, despite US campaign

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The good news is in the view from the lawn of Indonesia's National Islamic University: Clumps of students are decked out in Levis. Most of them say America is a tolerant society where Muslims practice freely - echoing the message at the center of a $600 million US public-relations campaign since Sept. 11.

But the good news ends there. Ahmad Imron, a lanky economics student in a red Planet Hollywood T-shirt, says that while America's message is getting through loud and clear, it's the wrong one.

"We know that there's religious freedom in America, and we like that,'' says Mr. Imron. "What we're angry about is the arrogant behavior of the US in the rest of the world."

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On the street, the reaction is the same, from street peddlers to US-trained academics: The US media campaign isn't relevant to Muslims' concerns. What saps their support for America is not impressions of how Muslims are treated inside the US, but their opinions about America's international relations - particularly with Israel and Iraq. Moreover, analysts say, if the US proceeds with plans to invade Iraq, its standing among Muslims will only fall.

"That is a certainty,'" says Azyumardi Azra, the rector of the university and a leading Muslim moderate. "War will stir more anti-Americanism."

A poll released last month by the Pew Research Center found steep declines in America's public image in every Muslim nation surveyed.

The US has traditionally enjoyed a better image in Indonesia than almost anywhere else in the Islamic world. But even here, the new PR effort isn't working. Pew poll data found that the number of Indonesians with a favorable impression of the US fell to 61 percent last year, from 75 percent in 1995.

Egypt is the most striking example of how difficult it is to win the war of public opinion. The country is typically the second-largest recipient of US government aid, yet only 6 percent of Egyptians said that they have a "favorable" view of the US, according to the Pew poll.

Nevertheless, the US public-relations campaign plows forward. Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim country and a secular state - has been the site of the most intense US campaigning. Along with Turkey, it's a populous Muslim nation where America hopes democracy will flourish. And, like Turkey, the country is a key ally in the war on terror.

The US has been getting the word out with prime-time television and radio spots. In late December, the State Department released a related booklet here, "Muslim Life in America," featuring prosperous American Muslims and statistics showing that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the States.

Mohammed Adam Hesa, an accounting student at Jakarta's National Islamic University, is a good example of the complex attitude most Indonesians have toward the US.

During the Suharto dictatorship, which fell in 1998, he looked to the States as a beacon of democracy. He says he'd jump at the chance to study at a big American university. But he also says he's uneasy about the global spread of American culture, and worries about its dominant role in world affairs.

"Sometimes we feel that America is a bully. Like with Iraq. They don't show any evidence. They just want to go to war.... If the US wants a better image, why doesn't it change its policies?"

From the beginning of the war on terror, the US government has been at pains to make it clear that it isn't against Islam.

Last month, US President George W. Bush hosted a dinner to mark Idul Fitri, the most important holiday on the Islamic calendar, and has reached out to Muslim leaders with speeches referring to Islam as "a faith based on peace, love, and compassion."

"After Sept. 11, many people argued that the war on terrorism was a war on Islam,'' US Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph Boyce said in his speech marking the release of the booklet. "I want to assure you again that this is completely untrue.''

When the US announced in October that it would be airing a series of five minidocumentaries on Muslims in America, some here worried the effort could backfire by coming across as propaganda.

Divianti Febriani Fariz, an Indonesian communications student at the University of Missouri, was filmed blending in with other students in lecture halls, attending prayers, and smiling on a bright campus.

"The American students that I have met have respected my beliefs. It's nice to know that people are willing to open up their hearts and understand what they don't know,'' she says.

But though the videos skirt some of the problems American Muslims may face, they seem to have been fairly well-received.

Siti Fitria, wearing a combination of Muslim head scarf and blue jeans that seems to be the uniform for women on campus, says she saw the spot on Ms. Fariz on television. "I was glad that Islam was able to have a place at her university,'' she says.

At the rollout of the booklet, which was attended by about 150 people, it was also clear that the State Department had taken to heart concerns that its early presentations on US Muslims were too sanitized.

Imam Yahya M. Hendi, the first Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, defended America in a live video link, but also spoke proudly of a protest march against US Israel policy in April and addressed the problems of US foreign policy to many Muslims.

"Some American policies contribute to the impression that America is anti-Islam,'' he said. "I don't think that - but we have to reexamine what we are and who we stand up for."

On the US government website devoted to its campaign - www.opendialogue.com - the US is allowing very critical comments to be posted. "We are not stupid or blind or deaf,'' reads one angry post from "Aida" in Indonesia. "We read your intention not by what you say, but what you do."

In the end, it's that sort of openness that may do the US the most good - and it's the type of public criticism sorely lacking in many Muslim societies.

As Mr. Hendi, a naturalized American who was born in Nablus, the West Bank, says, "I can criticize Presidents Bush or Clinton... and I don't have to worry about losing my job at the end of the day. That really means a lot to me."

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