Jewish World Review August 2, 2002 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5761

Zev Chafets

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Consumer Reports

Memo to The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S. values won't sell in Arab world | How can America win the hearts and minds of the world - particularly the Arab world? That conundrum is addressed in a report, issued this week, by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The council proposes allocating a vast sum for "public diplomacy" (aka propaganda). So far, so good. Nobody objects to spending a few billion dollars of tax money on PR, especially when some of the jobs are sure to go to deserving journalists.

Still, building an army of messengers raises a question: What's their message?

The Council on Foreign Relations wants to sell American values - "our democratic tradition, the values of strength of family and religious faith, freedom of expression, women's rights and education."

I'm afraid the council is fighting the last propaganda war.

During the Cold War it was axiomatic that the subjects of the Soviet empire were not fervid Communists. In fact, they were pretty much like us - folks who wanted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But this is not true of the Middle East. Say what you like about the beliefs and customs of Arab civic life, people there seem deeply attached to them.

It is possible, for example, that there are masses of Arabs who long for democratic government. If so, they are masters of secrecy. The Arab world has never had a Tiananmen Square. On the contrary, when demonstrators take to the streets, it is usually to demand greater religious repression or revenge against a neighbor.

Freedom of expression is also not prized. Where it exists at all, even in modified form (such as at Al Jazeera TV), it is usually used to demand less democracy, not more.

The council is also wrong to imagine that the Arab world admires, or can be taught to admire, American family values. Arab society is composed of tribes, clans and extended families who put a supreme value on loyalty and obedience. Father knows best in the Arab world. Uncle knows second best. American-style nuclear or nontraditional families seem unnatural, anarchic and completely dysfunctional.

The most wishful of all the council's thoughts is that Arab society is receptive to the American version of women's rights. Women in most Arab societies are property. Even "enlightened" countries like Jordan allow men to kill their womenfolk for dishonoring the family (i.e. having sex out of wedlock).

My point is not that such customs and practices are bad. Such a point would be politically incorrect. Who among us is to say that stoning an adulterous women to death is any worse than granting her a no-fault divorce? Who's to say that good government requires a change of leadership every 40 or 50 years?

Of course the Council on Foreign Relations is entitled to believe that America's values are worth peddling. But the notion that there's a market for freedom, secular democracy and modernity in the Arab world is delusional. No amount of PR will talk the masses of the Middle East out of their most cherished beliefs.

Unfortunately, one of those beliefs is that America, and everything it stands for, is the enemy.

JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, NY Daily News