No doubt, commentators around the globe will be assessing how President Barack Obama’s historic speech on strengthening U.S.-Muslim relations played around the globe for a long time. While people across the Arab and Islamic world comprised the president’s target audience, ultimately the U.S. public is pivotal for making that outreach succeed. Despite the promise of a new beginning, American prejudice against Arabs and Muslims has the potential to undermine the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy and Obama’s bold outstretched hand.

The United States embarked on a quest to improve its image — particularly in the Arab and Islamic regions — after the 9/11 attacks, when Americans realized that foreign perceptions have domestic consequences. Throughout the Bush years, the United States pursued some of the most innovative and aggressive public diplomacy initiatives in its history. Memorable moments include the first-ever advertising campaign to “brand America,” a glossy lifestyle magazine, a youth pop radio station, and Al-Hurra, a new television station whose name means “The Free One” in Arabic.

While each initiative was heralded with great fanfare, none succeeded in cracking the code for how to better communicate with the Arab and Islamic world or enhance the U.S. image.

Style and Substance

The Obama administration has similarly embarked on comparatively innovative initiatives aimed at the Muslim world. While there’s a distinct difference in style and tone, the focus on the Arab and Islamic world remains a very visible priority on the U.S. public diplomacy agenda. The first interview Obama granted from the White House was to the Arab television station, Al-Arabiya. Also similar are the innovative and high-profile initiatives that garner international media attention, such as his YouTube video greeting to the Iranian people or speech to the Turkish parliament during his visit in April.

Across the Arab and Islamic world, the change in style will be measured against the substance of U.S. policies. Over the years, many commentators have attributed America’s poor image to its unpopular policies. Foreign opinion polls repeatedly confirm the link between the U.S. image and U.S. foreign policy. However, while U.S. foreign policy may be unpopular in foreign countries, the president’s ability to change those policies lies in part on the American people — not foreigners. In this regard, much may need to change.

The irony of the aggressive U.S. efforts to improve its image and relations with the Arab and Islamic world is that many Americans view Arabs and Muslims in a very negative way. Similarly notable, America’s image has historically been highly favorable because it was one of the few great powers not to colonize parts of the Arab or Islamic regions. As Obama noted in his speech, a Muslim-majority country (Morocco) was the first to recognize the United States. While the U.S. position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and favoritism toward Israel become a constant source of political friction, that U.S. policy is not new. What is new is the realization of how strained the U.S.-Muslim relations have become and how much image is a factor of policy and diplomacy, and now “soft power.”


While America’s negative image is new, and stems in large part from the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, the negative image of Islam and Arabs among Americans has been a longstanding concern for Muslims and Arabs. More than 30 years ago, Edward Said penned Orientalism, which described the distorted, exotic images of the “Other” that Western scholars had cultivated about Arabs and Muslims in academic books. He later highlighted the negative stereotypes in the U.S. news media in his 1981 book Covering Islam. Jack Shaheen brought attention to the similar slanderous stereotypes on U.S. television and movies. According to Shaheen, Arab males were depicted as violent and irrational, while females were portrayed as oppressed sex objects. These stereotypical images pervaded popular children’s films, such as Disney’s Aladdin, as well as adult films such as Not Without My Daughter, The Delta Force, and True Lies.

In March 2006, when the United States was clamoring about its declining standing among publics in the Arab and Islamic region, a Washington Post-ABC poll revealed that the image of Islam among Americans had similarly declined. Nearly half (46%) of Americans surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Islam. While half (54%) thought Islam was a peaceful religion, 33% thought that mainstream Islam encouraged violence against non-Muslims, and 58% felt that there were more violent extremists within Islam than other religions. Another Washington Post-ABC poll in March 2009 detected few changes in public opinion. Negative American sentiment and images of Islam and Arabs are what prominent Middle East scholar and commentator Juan Cole said in his recent book, Engaging the Muslim World, are undermining America’s relations.

Campaign Trail

One may wonder if Obama’s efforts to tie Islam and respect may stem in part from his experience as a presidential candidate. During the campaign, despite his strenuous pronouncements that he was a Christian, attempts were made to link him to Islam and portray him as a Muslim. Prominent examples included the widely circulated image of a young Obama visiting Kenya and wearing a turban and native dress to suggest doing so made him a Muslim. He was depicted on the cover of The New Yorker dressed in similar “Muslim” garb giving a fist salute to his wife Michelle who is dressed in camouflage fatigues with an automatic rifle thrown across her shoulder. (During the ensuing controversy, the magazine’s editors defended the illustration as a parody of how right-wing pundits portrayed Obama.)

At a rally for John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, a woman rose to express her sentiments about Obama, “He’s an Arab,” to which McCain replied, “No, no, he is a good, decent family man.” McCain’s comment implied that Arabs are not good, decent family men.

To be perceived as a Muslim was so negative that political commentators spoke of it as potentially jeopardizing Obama’s presidential bid. Rather than denouncing the tactic or questioning the anti-Islamic sentiment, Democratic strategists sought to distance the candidate from Islam by downplaying his family heritage. It was not until Colin Powell, a five-star general who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, spoke up that the latently racist tactic was even confronted. By asking “So what if he is a Muslim? A Christian? Or a Jew?” Powell exposed the religious prejudice that until then was pervading the presidential campaign in much of the country as un-American. He challenged the image of fear associated with Islam by relating a story of one America’s fallen soldiers, who happened to be Muslim.

Two-Way Mirror

The problem of America’s outreach to the Arab and Islamic world is one of mirror images that distort the relations between Americans and Arabs and Muslims. In an interconnected world, it’s deceptive to speak of “us” versus “them,” for how we see them, is often how they will see us and vice versa. For the United States to focus only on improving its image, as it has in the years since September 2001, is to see only half of the picture.

Given the mirror phenomenon, the bottom line for U.S. public diplomacy is fairly clear: If the United States hopes to significantly improve its image in the Arab and Islamic world, there will need to be a corresponding change in how Americans perceive Arabs and Muslims.

Obama appears cognizant of the two-sided nature of America’s image problem and its resulting impact on U.S.-Muslim relations. His emphasis on reciprocity in “mutual interests and mutual respect” shouldn’t go unnoticed. While observers may focus on how his speech plays in other countries, in the long run it will be important to gauge the impact of his speech on his equally important, other audience back home. If it reduces American prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, then his address would truly mark a new beginning for U.S.-Muslim relations.

R.S. Zaharna is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, an associate professor of public communication at American University, and author of Strategic U.S. Public Diplomacy in a Global Communication Era (Palgrave) due out later this year.

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