US ads miss mark, Muslims say
America's image in the Muslim world slides, despite US campaign
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.