At Al-Hewar Center

Winning Hearts Before Wars – 
The U.S. and the Muslim World

by Ambassador Husain Haqqani

“The concept of discourse and dialogue and communication is an idea that really needs to come full circle, especially in the Arab and Muslim world where it has been ignored for some time, much to the detriment of the level of politics and decision-making in the 1.2 billion strong Muslim world,” said former Advisor to Pakistani Prime Ministers, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, during his presentation at Al-Hewar Center on July 13, 2003.

The subject of his speech was “Winning Hearts before Wars – the U.S. and the Muslim World.”  Ambassador Haqqani is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a journalist, and a diplomat. The evening was moderated by Mr. Mazhar Samman, Vice President of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce.

The following is Ambassador Haqqani’s presentation: 

The favorite line on the cover of Newsweek after 9/11, “Why do they hate us?”, came from the assumption that certain people were willing to give up their lives merely to show their hatred for and disapproval of the United States. I feel that it is something more complex than that. In fact, by labeling it as a question of us vs. them, we are missing the importance of the analysis that needs to done of the relationship between one entire people and another entire people.

The United States has many good qualities. It is a very special country in many ways. It does not have a very long history compared with nations that take pride in relating to ancestors over 5,000 years ago, yet the United States has been the source of a lot of modern technological innovation and achievement. It has the strongest contemporary economy. It is also the single largest military power in the world. In many ways, the United States is currently the powerhouse of global political, economic, and military power.

At the end of the Cold War, it was presumed that this preeminence of the United States would go unchallenged, and I think that in conventional terms it is unchallenged. There is no single power in the world, or grouping of powers, that can challenge U.S. supremacy and eminence. Yet, what 9/11 demonstrated to a lot of people was that the United States is not invulnerable. It may not be vulnerable to conventional opposition, but it is certainly vulnerable to unconventional, sub-conventional, or non-conventional means of attack.

The U.S. response was very militaristic. The United States decided that it would locate its enemies and liquidate them. So the war in Afghanistan started. I am one of those who felt that what happened on 9/11 was a tremendous wrong that needed not only to be condemned, but that the source also needed to eliminated and eradicated. However, I also feel that the eradication of the moderating factors that caused this incident cannot be erased purely by military means. Terrorism is not something that is located somewhere specific which can be bombed and eliminated; it is something that is located in the hearts and minds of individuals. Thus, it cannot be completely eliminated without reaching the hearts and minds of the people.

The United States is based on certain ideas which it feels gives it some kind of moral high ground, but many people in America are concerned that that moral high ground will be lost if the U.S. goes around bombing people or using military means to subdue entire countries and peoples.

So the United States has a special interest in the battle of hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Where do we stand today? There has been a lot of opinion polling in the Muslim world recently. A recent poll published by the Pew Center for International Policy, titled “Changing Attitudes in the World” had a very interesting line it: “The bottom has fallen out of support for the U.S. in the Muslim world.” In many Muslim countries, support for the United States was less than 10%. These include the countries that the United States considers its allies, for example Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia – countries whose rulers are close to the United States and take pride in it, and sometimes give the impression that they are not going to be removed from power easily because the United States supports them, both militarily and economically.

In these polls, the people are asked what is it that you do not like about the United States? Is it U.S. policy, is it U.S. values, is it U.S. democracy? The answer inevitably has been U.S. policy. It has not been U.S. values, and it has certainly not been U.S. democracy. Ironically, in many of the countries, democracy was something that the people admired most about the United States. If you read the subtext of this polling, it seems to be “you have built a great political system for yourselves because you have figured out how to choose your leaders and how to remove your leaders, and how to hold them accountable between the choosing and the removing. Now, let us have that as well.”

I think that is a major reason for a lot of disapproval and dislike of the United States. It is a feeling that the U.S. has been involved in maintaining the status quo, especially in terms in keeping in power regimes and rulers who do not have public and popular approval. So the more the rulers are sympathetic and supportive of the United States and the more they embrace the U.S., the more the people seem to dislike both the United States and their own rulers. It is more difficult for them to oppose their rulers, because they rule with an iron fist. So people find it easier to voice their sentiments against the United States. Sometimes the rulers don’t mind that because it is a way of letting out steam, and people can come out into the streets and demonstrate against the United States, but they do not show the same enthusiasm in embracing a revolution against the rulers.

I feel that there are at least six reasons for the present state of what the poll called the “bottom falling out” of support for the United States in the Muslim world.

First, I think that Muslim public opinion has never been a priority in U.S. decision-making. The United States got involved in the Middle East, first, and then in the rest of the Muslim World, as a result of its emergence as the principle global power during the Cold War. It inherited some of the regional influence that the British previously had in the Middle East, and, of course, U.S. policy was somewhat tied down by its commitment to protect the state of Israel. So the Middle East fell into that pattern.

Because the United States got involved with these countries that gained independence: Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and all the Arab countries, the U.S. focus was on Cold War considerations, on strategic considerations. It was not about becoming popular.

This is different than how America operated in Europe, for example, where it was about popularity, because immediately after WWII, the Communist parties of Italy and France, in particular, were major political forces, and because these countries had democracy, people could vote the Communists in and out. America was concerned that, if things got too bad, people would become so disillusioned with the status quo that they would vote for the Communist party. That is why the Marshal Plan was implemented. We had to make sure that people who were previously under the oppressive rule of the Fascists and the Nazis didn’t end up embracing or tilting toward the Communist block. So there was an American effort to win the hearts and minds of Europe.

In the rest of the world, it was less about winning hearts and minds and more about having strategic partners. Those strategic partners were chosen on the basis of who would be able to govern countries sufficiently strongly to ensure that these countries and their militaries and the bases they provided and the oil and resources they had did not fall under Communist influence.

The United States tended to ignore local considerations. For example, the Pakistanis became American partners, not because they were so concerned about Communism, but because they were concerned about India and Kashmir. But that was relegated to a subtext among U.S. policy makers. The Arabs were also willing to do business with the United States during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia and some of the conservative Arab countries were willing to be strategic and economic partners with the United States, but they also had an interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, because of larger strategic concerns, those issues were ignored by the United States.

So first, public opinion was not a priority, and second the relations that were built were specifically geared toward a strategic picture rather than sensitivity to local, regional, and popular concerns.

The second major reason for the discord between the U.S. and the Muslim World comes from ignorance. There is a general ignorance at the popular level in America, where there is general ignorance on international affairs anyway (less than 20% of Americans have passports, which is the lowest proportion of passports in any developed country in the world. This means that most Americans have no exposure to the rest of the world). There has also been a dearth of coverage of the world in the American media.

During the Cold War, American media had correspondents all over the world, who lived among the people and understood the cultures. They understood the situation they were reporting on better, and they constantly fed bits of information to America, at least to the decision-making elite. After the Cold War, all these correspondents were brought back home; so after 9/11, journalists had to be sent from Atlanta and Washington, D.C. to the Middle East and Afghanistan, because there were no more correspondents in the region. Thus, the cultural sensitivity  and regional understanding is now lacking.

Unfortunately, not only the average American, but even very senior decision-makers do not know the difference between Arabs and Muslims, between non-Muslim Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. These are the factors of ignorance.

There is also ignorance within the Muslim and Arab Worlds about American political processes and decision-making processes. For example, only recently has the Arab world started having an open media. Before that, most of the media was government-controlled, and therefore a journalist was also a government employee. He could be asked to tell his boss things that couldn’t be published, so he could be seen as a kind of spy. Therefore, many people in that region of the world, assumed all American journalists were spies as well.

There is also a lack of openness in many parts of the world. A lot of the politics is manipulated and elections are fixed, so people cannot always comprehend the dynamic of American politics. That ignorance influences people. If a newspaper article comes out about a Muslim country or an Arab leader, people assume that the CIA must have put it there. There is an assumption that everything is based on some conspiratorial plan, and of course this is not always true.

So there is ignorance on both sides.

The third reason, I think, is that the United States has had a power-based foreign policy, especially toward the Muslim World, rather than an ideas- or beliefs-based policy. The United States proclaims that it is a nation based on certain ideas: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the notion of democracy, the notion of free enterprise, the notion of individual freedom, separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, etc. However, when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, and especially the Muslim world, there is a lobby in the United States that has persuaded everyone that Arabs and Muslims do not understand these ideas. Bernard Lewis, for example writing in his book that the Arabs respond best to power, or Samuel Huntington writing in his book that Islam is not conducive to democracy. These created stereotypes have influenced American policy towards that region, that it is all about creating a power relationship.

So the American power relationship focuses on keeping these people in their place and punishing those who won’t play our game and rewarding those who do. This is very demeaning and humiliating. And the people in these regions of the world have ideas and beliefs and energy and a sense of pride and a long history – a much longer history than the United States – and they do not like being put in their place by a much younger nation. That is why there will always be people like Gamal Abdul Nasser standing up and saying I will not accept your point of view. This also generates a culture of defiance where the most popular leader will be the one who defies, whether he is able to fight or not, whether he wins or not. This defiance plays into the emotion and the sentiment of the people on the street, which is, “we are people, we are proud people, we should be treated as equals, with respect for our ideas.”

So I think the United States would succeed better if it tried to create bridges with the people of the Muslim world based on common ideas, as well as America’s own unique ideas. I think if, for example, U.S. friendship was based on a common and shared appreciation for free debate, for democracy, for the ideas that the American people have always stood for electorally over the last century, that would work a lot better than just the simplistic notion that somehow the Arabs and the Muslims respond only to power. The power-based approach has cost the Americans a lot of support in the Muslim world.

The fourth contributing factor, I would say, is the baggage of history, which works at both ends. The Arabs and the Muslims need to engage in a lot of self-examination and introspection. There is a lot that we have done wrong in terms of understanding things and making decisions. There is a lot that our leaders have done wrong. But having said that, let us say that there are reasons for certain understandings that drive them and the U.S. apart. For example, the United States is viewed in many parts of the world as a continuation of British and French colonization. I think that is a kind of baggage of history. Lawrence of Arabia didn’t keep his promises, how do we trust you? This has meant that anything positive the United States has done toward Muslims and Arabs has ended up being overwhelmed by other things that have not been positive. For example, there is little discussion in the Arab world that the United States was on the side of the Arabs in 1957 during the Suez Crisis and made the British and the French and the Israelis withdraw. And there is very little mention of the fact that U.S. military intervention in Bosnia and Kosova was on behalf of the Muslims and was sympathetic to them. People tend to forget that in Kashmir the Americans have many times tried to help Pakistan get some kind of settlement with India.

The fifth reason, I think, are substantive issues of policy, for example, U.S. support for Israel and U.S. support for unpopular dictators. One of the things that the United States has always ignored is the cross-state sentiment in the Arab world, and now increasingly in the Muslim world. This means that in 21 Arab states, there is an “Arab” sentiment that affects 250 million Arabs. Similarly, there is an Islamic sentiment that affects 1.2 billion Muslims, whether in Chechnya or China, India or Pakistan, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia. There are cross-Islamic and cross-Arab sentiments. That has never been a seriously considered element in American foreign policy making, because the policy was never based on public opinion anyway. It has always been a chess game, lining up pieces to pit against each other to try to balance things out.

It is very interesting that only recently has the American policy-making establishment even started reading opinion polls from the Muslim and the Arab world. For many years, they were not a part of the decision making. It only mattered what the leaders thought, it was never about how the people on the street think. Even now, it is insufficient.

The final reason, is the general presumption in many parts of the Muslim world that the United States plays a role in the domestic affairs of Muslim countries. The domestic, regional, and international arenas all get mingled in the eyes of the public. This became especially strong after the 1953 coup against Dr. Mussadaq in Iran and the reports that came out thereafter. Most people in Egypt or Karachi or Jakarta have not been exposed to the American way of life, but they do know that if the Americans have the ability to bring the Shah of Iran into power, then they have the ability to put somebody into power in their country or to remove somebody from power. That affects their feelings about the United States. It creates a sense of helplessness and humiliation that makes them wonder “what is our power?”

I think that there are four things that need to be done to remedy all of these problems.

First, in my opinion, winning of hearts and minds has to be made a priority. It has to feature in the policy agenda. The assumption that, as long as we have rulers who can keep a lid on the sentiment of their citizens, public opinion in the Muslim world does not matter has to be done away with if there is to be a new relationship between Islam and the United States.

If we really want to finish the cycle of hatred, all sides need to be addressed. In the war against drugs, for example, the United States is working on all sides: it is working to interdict the supply or drugs, and it wants to cut down the distribution of the drugs, and it wants to make fewer and fewer people want to buy the drugs. The same needs to be done with terrorism. The supply of terrorists also needs to be finished. The sentiment that makes a man go into the terrorist movement, the recruitment of people, the ideas, the whole mindset needs to be dealt with. It cannot be dealt with just by finding one person who plants a bomb and killing him. That is the easy part. But for every one that you find, there are ten more who are being recruited. The emotions and the sentiments that are driving the recruitment need to be dealt with, and therefore, public opinion, and how people feel in the Muslim world, and their sentiments and views need to taken into account.

And they need to be taken into account over a range of things, for example, their hatred for their own rulers – rulers that the United States ends up supporting. Their hatred for certain elements of U.S. policy. Their helplessness and feelings of total lack of power over their own lives. All of that needs to be addressed. The first step is to bring it into the policy-making process and not keep it relegated as an unimportant issue as it has been in the past.

Second, I think that the United States needs to make an investment in the two-way process of diminishing and dealing with the ignorance that feeds the hatred. Treating the disease is always far more expensive than preventing it.

Right now, I am particularly concerned that there is an element of hatred that is being generated in the United States. The Evangelical movement, for example, is talking about trying to convert the entire Muslim World. Hatred is being generated – isolate the Arabs, isolate the Muslims, let’s hate them, the only good Muslim is one who stops being a Muslim, etc. – that hatred is not going to work and it is going to feed more hatred. There has to be a two-way process of diminishing and dealing with the ignorance that feeds this history. The ignorance of Muslim history and of Arab history here in the United States, and the ignorance in the Arab and Muslim world of U.S. political, military, and economic power and the sources of that power and strength. Both need to be addressed.

People need to understand what makes America great. It is not just about weapons, it is not just about spending $4 billion a month to occupy Iraq. The United States has a lot of strengths, and those strengths need to be taken to the people so that there is a greater relationship of understanding each other rather than of hating each other.

The third thing that needs to be done is that some specific policies do need to be reviewed. The United States needs to recognize that certain nations will always have a historic approach to politics and to problem-solving. I was in a meeting recently and there was some discussion about Kashmir. There was an Indian, myself and an American, and the Indian was repeating some historical point about Kashmir and I was countering his point from a Pakistani perspective, and the American, a very important official from the State Department, said “but that’s history!” Americans use the term “history” in a very dismissive and disparaging way. In Pakistan or in the Middle East, if you call someone “history” it means he is a very important person, he is part of history. This is an attitudinal divide and it something the United States has to overcome. America is the big power that placing its assets and young men all over the world. Therefore, America has to understand that others do not have the attitude of shrugging their shoulders and saying “that’s just history; let’s find a way of sorting everything out.” Some problems cannot be solved. They will be there for a long time, and people will be arguing back and forth about them for a long time. Americans have a very high divorce rate because of this attitude. But those of us who come from a traditional know that there are some marital arguments that go on. Forever. They are not resolved, but you still stay together. I think that is a model that the Americans need to understand – that maybe we cannot solve every problem in the world, but that we need to review our policies to understand that there will be nations in the world that will have a different view of the issues. They will have a greater concern for history.

For example, it will take some for the Iranians to recognize that what happened in 1953 is history, that it is not an ongoing process, and it is not a model for something that will happen again and again. And the Americans have to reassure the Iranians about that. It is important. The same applies to a lot of Middle Eastern history: the British occupation and their subsequent role, the American role in Indonesia, in Pakistan, political and domestic involvement, commitments to different kinds of rulers. Those are the kinds of things that need to be treated with a little more understanding and a little more realization that everything that the Americans do in one country has repercussions in another country.

I had never been to Iran until I was in my 30s, but I knew so much about Iranian history and Iranian political history that I could have entered into a competition with an American expert on it. And I am sure the same applies to others in the Middle East and in the Islamic world. People in Indonesia know the details of Palestinian history that people in the United States cannot visualize or imagine.

The last thing that is important for changing the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world on the front of hearts and minds is that the United States should seriously consider an ideas approach to winning support in the Arab and Islamic worlds, rather than a power approach. American power is big and massive, but it is unlikely to make everybody calm down. It is very likely that there will still be people with their little sword and their little musket and their little gun who will still want to resist tremendous American power.

The better way for Americans to relate to the Muslim world is to say… we come to you with ideas of development and growth, with you keeping your identity and respect. We are offering to you our way of life, which has many good qualities. There may be elements of our way of life that you will not embrace, and you are free to do that. But we are a nation whose greatness is not because we have the ability to knock all your houses down with cruise missiles, but our real strength lies in the fact that 250 years ago we understood the value of democracy and created institutions for democracy and we have been trying to improve and develop them. Our Declaration of Independence is our source of strength. Our Constitution is our source of strength. Our history, though short compared to yours, is also an important history because we have developed the notions and ideas of free markets and capitalism and democracy, and this is something we have to offer you. That is something that you should consider rather than just fearing our might.

I think those four elements: making hearts and minds a priority; investing in the two-way process of dealing with ignorance on both sides; reviewing policies that have caused resentment; and the ideas rather than the power approach, are likely to win the United States more hearts and minds in the Muslim world than a military approach alone.


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