Monday, September 24, 2007

Entering the Marketplace of Ideas


If Neil MacFarquhar can't be in the Middle East, he is at least informing us from Washington. On Saturday his article about the State Department's Digital Outreach Team appeared, chronicling a duo of Arabic speakers who cruise Arabic-language chatrooms with a purpose:

Walid Jawad was tired of all the chatter on Middle Eastern blogs and Internet forums in praise of gory attacks carried out by the “noble resistance” in Iraq.

So Mr. Jawad, one of two Arabic-speaking members of what the State Department called its Digital Outreach Team, posted his own question: Why was it that many in the Arab world quickly condemned civilian Palestinian deaths but were mute about the endless killing of women and children by suicide bombers in Iraq?

Among those who responded was a man named Radad, evidently a Sunni Muslim, who wrote that many of the dead in Iraq were just Shiites and describing them in derogatory terms. But others who answered Mr. Jawad said that they, too, wondered why only Palestinian dead were “martyrs.”

The discussion tacked back and forth for four days, one of many such conversations prompted by scores of postings the State Department has made on about 70 Web sites since it put its two Arab-American Web monitors to work last November.

State will add four more Arabic speakers, plus two Farsi and one Urdu speaker, to the mix within a month although some observers question whether the program will survive the Bush administration.

This sounds like a program that should be continued by the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, as part of a full-court PD press. There is a void in U.S. PD efforts between war-room spinning and jazz-band visits, occupied thus far by high-profile actors like foreign aid, our diplomats, and disaster relief.

It can only help U.S. policy to have polite, persistent, day-to-day voices engaging the wired Muslim world, and sometimes asking tougher questions than Secretary Rice can.

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