Hearts, Minds, and Dollars
In an Unseen Front in the War on Terrorism, America is Spending Millions...To Change the Very Face of Islam
The CIA is not alone in the new push for hearts and minds. Regular budget increases since 9/11 have lifted spending on public diplomacy by more than 40 percent since 9/11, to nearly $1.3 billion, and more is on the way. The government's new Arabic broadcasting services--Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV--are showing some success, despite a barrage of complaints from critics. Radio Sawa, which features pop music interspersed with frequent newscasts, is now one of the most popular stations in the Middle East. Estimates differ, but an ACNielsen survey last year found that Alhurra, after just six months on the air, was reaching between 20 percent and 33 percent of viewers with satellite dishes in a half-dozen key Arab nations. There are new initiatives to bring Alhurra to Arab speakers in Europe, expand Persian broadcasts into Iran, and increase programming in other key languages.
_ Many of the shock troops for America's new war of ideas are coming not from the CIA, nor from the State Department, but from the low-profile U.S. Agency for International Development. In the three years since 9/11, spending by the government's top purveyor of foreign aid has nearly tripled to over $21 billion, and more than half of that is now destined for the Muslim world. Along with more traditional aid for agriculture and education are the kind of programs that have spurred change in the former Soviet Union--training for political organizers and funding for independent media. Increasingly, those grants are going to Islamic groups.
"Muppet diplomacy." Records drawn from the State Department, USAID, and elsewhere reveal a striking array of Islamic projects bankrolled by American taxpayers since 9/11, stretching to at least 24 countries. In nine of them, U.S. funds are backing restoration of Muslim holy sites, including historic mosques in Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. In Kirgizstan, embassy funding helped restore a major Sufi shrine. In Uzbekistan, money has gone to preserve antique Islamic manuscripts, including 20 Korans, some dating to the 11th century. In Bangladesh, USAID is training mosque leaders on development issues. In Madagascar, the embassy even sponsored an intermosque sports tournament. Also being funded: Islamic media of all sorts, from book translations to radio and TV in at least a half-dozen nations. Often the aid doesn't need an explicit Islamic theme, as in what boosters are calling Muppet Diplomacy. An Arabic version of Sesame Street has become one of the most popular shows on Egyptian TV, and along with lessons on literacy and hygiene, the program stresses values of religious tolerance. Among the show's key backers: USAID, which is helping bring out a pan-Arab satellite edition this year.
In no country is the effort more pronounced than Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, with 240 million people. A bastion of moderate Islam, the nation has nevertheless given birth to several radical Islamic groups that include al Qaeda offshoot Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202. Working behind the scenes, USAID now helps fund over 30 Muslim organizations in the country. Among the programs: media production, workshops for Islamic preachers, and curriculum reform for schools from rural academies to Islamic universities. One talk show on Islam and tolerance is relayed to radio stations in 40 cities and sends a weekly column to over a hundred newspapers. Also on the grants list: Islamic think tanks that are fostering a body of scholarly research showing liberal Islam's compatibility with democracy and human rights.