Muslim-as-Apple-Pie Videos Are Greeted With Skepticism

The following article is from The New York Times. It looks at the U.S. government public diplomacy effort to show the Muslim world that America is not at war with Islam. Videos show that Muslims love their America and the U.S. campaign aims to win hearts and minds of peopel in Islamic countries. You can see the original article at

Muslim-as-Apple-Pie Videos Are Greeted With Skepticism
By Jane Perlez
New York Times
October 30, 2002

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Oct. 29 - Rawia Ismail, a vivacious young teacher in Toledo, Ohio, her head covered with an Islamic head scarf, appears in a United States government video that will have its first public showing this week on national television here in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The Lebanese-born Ms. Ismail is shown with her three smiling children in her all-American kitchen, at a school softball game, and in front of her class, extolling American values.

"I didn't see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after Sept. 11," says Ms. Ismail.

The portrayal of Ms. Ismail as a woman who practices her Muslim faith in America with ease is one of the images that the Bush administration is offering to the Muslim world as an example of how America is not at war with Islam.

The message, in four videos about American Muslims that are to be shown here and in other Islamic countries, is one of tolerance at home and a desire to reach out abroad.

But viewers who have seen the videos were skeptical about whether life for Muslims in the United States is really so rosy.

The videos are part of a major campaign, conceived by a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, who is under secretary of state for public diplomacy, to sell the United States to a skeptical - and in places, hostile - Muslim world.

They tell the stories of a prominent doctor, Elias Zerhouni, the Algerian-born director of the National Institutes of Health; a Libyan-born baker, Abdul Hammuda, in Toledo; a Brooklyn-born medic with the New York Fire Department, Farooq Muhammad; and Ms. Ismail.

The theory underpinning the videos, and newspaper ads and radio spots that will accompany them, is that the United States is a misunderstood place. In reality, the message implies, America recognizes Islam as an important religion and one of the fastest-growing in America.

Another feature of the broader campaign is a new radio station, Radio Sawa, that broadcasts in the Arab world, playing pop music in Arabic and English and providing top-of-the-hour news from an American point of view. Muslim academics from Asia and the Middle East are also being sent to the United States for study tours. More than 20 principals of Islamic schools in Indonesia visited the United States this summer.

At a preview of the videos here today, presided over by the American ambassador, Ralph L. Boyce, and attended by Indonesian journalists and academics, the reception was mixed.

Indeed, inside the State Department, some diplomats who have lived in Islamic countries criticized the scripts before their release for being patronizing and too simplistic, department officials said.

Some adjustments were made, they said. But according to today's viewers, not enough.

No East or Southeast Asia Muslims appeared in the videos, even though the videos were being introduced in this region, they said. It was as if the State Department believed Muslims only lived in Arab countries and only those Muslims migrated to the United States, several in the audience said.

The most telling critique came from Rizal Mallarangeng, a television host and political analyst who has just finished eight years of study at Ohio State University.

Mr. Mallarangeng praised the State Department for trying to overcome the hostility in the Islamic world toward the United States.

But, he said, the videos' story lines missed the complexities of being a Muslim in America.

"I have friends like this," he said referring to the characters in the videos. "They want to be good Muslims and good Americans. This is a bipolar way of life and the question always is how to solve the perpetual conflict."

There were straightforward matters, said Mr. Mallarangeng, like how a Muslim student could pray the requisite number of times while attending an American public school.

"How does a student find a place to pray?" he said. "At an American public school there is no religion and I understand. But what does the religious father of a Muslim student say at home about this?"

Others in the audience said that by presenting a picture of universal tolerance in the United States, the videos bordered on being propaganda.

Mr. Muhammad, the Fire Department medic in Brooklyn, for example, speaks of working with colleagues of the Hindu, Christian and Jewish faiths. "We're all brothers and sisters," he says. Dr. Zerhouni, of the National Institutes of Health, says, "The tolerance and support I have received myself is remarkable," and, "I don't think there is any other country in the world where different people from different countries are as accepted and welcomed as members of a society."

Rosita S. Noer, who just completed studies at Harvard, said she found the scenes "too hard-sell."

"When I was in Harvard Square after Sept. 11," she said, "I heard young people saying very hard things about Muslims."

For the videos to make a more convincing case to skeptical Indonesians, said Muhammad Rusmadi, a journalist at the Islamic newspaper, Rakyat Merdeka, he would have liked to see American Muslims actually living alongside people of other religions. "It would be good to see American Muslims interacting with American Jews," he said.

It would be even better, said Mr. Rusmadi, for American officials to go to Islamic schools and to make their case directly to students.

The videos shown today are intended for a number of Islamic countries. So far, the Egyptian government has declined to allow them to be shown on its television stations, saying it does not accept paid programming from a foreign country, an American diplomat in Cairo said. But the embassy was still pursuing the case, he said. In Pakistan, the programs have not yet been offered to the government-run television station because of the uncertainties in the aftermath of the recent election, in which militant Islamic parties showed surprising strength, an American official there said.

Indonesia was chosen as the first country to see the series of videos because it is the most populous Muslim country, a State Department official said. Neighboring Malaysia is scheduled to begin airing the series next week.

Discussions about showing the videos are under way with a number of countries in the Middle East, including those in the Persian Gulf. There are no plans at this time to show the series in Saudi Arabia, the State Department official said. Officials hope to show the videos in Jordan but have no definite schedule yet.

In many countries, the videos will be shown on government-run television and will need to win the approval of government censors. In some places where American foreign policy is a major source of irritation, this may be tough. The target audience is the "nonelite," 15- to 59-year-olds, he said. In all, $10 million to $15 million will be spent on production, research and buying television time. The advertising company McCann-Erickson produced the videos based on the State Department's research. The department hopes the videos will run in many of the target countries through Ramadan, which begins in early November and ends in early December.

Ramadan was deemed a suitable period for the videos because it is a time when Muslims concentrate on family and spiritual life, themes that the videos try to reflect.

Special efforts will be made to give audiences here in Indonesia, elsewhere in Asia and in the Middle East the chance to respond to the videos and the print campaign accompanying them, the official said. A special booklet in local languages with articles about Muslim life in the United States will be distributed with a tear sheet in the back asking readers to send their reactions to either a local post box number in the country or directly to the State Department.

The characters in the videos, like Ms. Ismail, will also be made available for two-way satellite interviews.

To the protests that the characters presented a pretty veneer to the complicated picture of Muslim life in America, Mr. Boyce said, "We will take that on board."

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