Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Semantics of Terror

To think that the success or failure of U.S. public diplomacy can sometimes hinge on something as little--and as much--as a word is not a comforting thought. But it is the reality of the U.S. message in the modern Middle East. A New York Times piece--a “Memo from Cairo [and Gaza]” explains why:

A battle over the term terrorist has become a proxy for the larger issues that divide Washington and the Arab public.
President Obama told his envoy, George J. Mitchell, to go to the Middle East and listen. But when the United States refers to Hamas, or the Lebanese group Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization, the popular view here is that Washington still is not listening.

If President Obama is serious about repairing relations with the Arab world and re-establishing the United States as an honest broker in Middle East peace talks, one step would be to bridge a chasm in perception that centers on one contentious word: terrorism.

“If Obama thinks these organizations are terrorists, there will never be peace,” said Hany Hassan, 29, who was selling flowers from his uncle’s shop in the quiet Cairo suburb of Maadi. “Bin Laden, he is a terrorist. These organizations, if America thinks they are terrorists, they will have to convince us.”

Much like the al-Khoury op-ed, Hassan’s take at least leaves open the possibility that the U.S. has the potential--or expectation--to refine its message; that it still has a sliver of the benefit of the doubt. For the moment, at least, prospects remain bleak:

People interviewed in Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon said they saw nothing but hypocrisy in the way the West applied the terrorist label — a feeling tied very closely to a belief that the West reserved the term for Muslims. President Obama has tried to counter that perception with his outreach to the Muslim world, but with the memory of Gaza so fresh, and with Washington still defining Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, opinions have not shifted.

While the new Administration’s dislike for the loaded phrase “Global War on Terror” is a recognition of layered-meaning in this part of the world, the ‘terrorist’/ally dichotomy may be overshadowing such subtle changes in rhetoric with a discouraging return to Mattern’s idea of “verbal fighting via representational force.”

What has happened, [Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel] and other regional analysts said, is that the use of the term “terrorist” has become a simplistic point, counterpoint offensive of its own, reflecting the growing influence of radicalism on both sides. It is often used to cloud issues, to avoid having to talk and to try to appear to take the moral high ground, they said.

Mr. Pundak said it was useful to recall, for example, that while the United States and Israel recognized Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians, not long ago Fatah and its leader, Yasir Arafat, were considered terrorists...“We are fueling each other’s paranoia by the simplistic discourse we are pursuing,” Mr. Pundak said.

Pundak’s view brings to mind Jay Black’s concept of creative communication, which may give us an analytic framework for understanding just how Arab publics arrive at the conclusion that Washington’s seemingly-selective labeling of ‘terrorists’ is, at best diplomatic double-speak and, at worst, propaganda:

Whereas creative communication accepts pluralism and displays expectations that its receivers should conduct further investigations of its observations, allegations, and conclusions...this type of communication seems noncreative and appears to have as its purpose the evaluative narrowing of its receivers: A finalistic or fixed view of people, institutions, and situations divided into broad, all-inclusive categories of in-groups (friends) and out-groups (enemies), beliefs and disbeliefs, and situations to be accepted or rejected in toto.

Although the U.S. may readily reject the notion that using ‘terrorist’ as an adjective for at least the violent armed wings of popularly-elected political parties like Hamas and Hezbollah is tantamount to propaganda, recognizing that the message is oft received in this way in the Arab world may be the first step towards bridging the linguistically-loaded divide. As Corman et al. remind us, listeners create their own meaning of messages from “history, local context, and power relations.” The reality in Gaza and many surrounding Arab states is in ready supply of each.

There is no easy out for U.S. public diplomacy in this bind. It cannot eschew negative terminology in characterizing groups that seek the violent destruction of a key U.S. ally. But perhaps acknowledging the fact that it does not have ownership over the ‘terrorist’ designation, nor a monopoly on value judgements about the use of violence, is the key. The take-away lesson here may be that President Obama’s “disruptive move” in appearing on al Arabiyya was a laudable first step, but that given the proportionality disputes and power relations in play in Gaza, U.S. public diplomacy should “expect and plan for failure” in continuing to employ the terrorist label over the short term in its messages to Arab publics.

--apologies for a long post--

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this interesting posting. You and your colleagues might be interested in my blog, "Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review."

    Best wishes, john brown