Only two senators were in the room when Karen Hughes testified at her confirmation hearings. When it came time for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote on her nomination yesterday, she was easily approved. And thus with no discussion and no debate, Hughes takes over the least noticed, least respected and possibly most important job in the State Department. Her formal title is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. In plain English, her job is to fight anti-Americanism, promote American culture and above all to do intellectual battle with the ideology of radical Islam, a set of beliefs so powerful that they can persuade middle-class, second-generation British Muslims to blow themselves up on buses and trains.
Presumably, President Bush selected Hughes for this task because she was very good at running his election campaigns. And indeed, in the testimony she gave last week to a nearly empty room, she sounded like she was still running an election campaign. Like Hillary Clinton, she said she wanted people around the world to know that she would be “listening” to them: “I want to learn more about you and your lives, what you believe, what you fear, what you dream, what you value most.” Like Jesse Jackson, she deployed alliteration, alluding to the four “E’s”: “engagement, exchanges, education and empowerment.”
Unfortunately, Hughes’s most important constituents aren’t going to respond to engagement and empowerment, let alone exchange and education, unless the latter involves those flight schools where they don’t teach you how to take off or land. It has become clear in Iraq, if it wasn’t already, that what we call the “war on terrorism” is in fact a small part of a larger intellectual and religious struggle within Islam, between moderates who want to live in modern countries, and radicals who want to impose their extreme interpretation of sharia, or religious law. So far, most of the money, and most of the “public diplomacy,” has been channeled to the radicals. Consider, for example, an extraordinary report published this year by the Center for Religious Freedom, a division of Freedom House, which surveys more than 200 books and pamphlets collected at mosques and Islamic centers in U.S. cities. Most were in Arabic. All were published by the Saudi government or royal family, and all promote the extreme form of Wahhabi Islam found in Saudi Arabia. The books reflect contempt for the United States, condemn democracy as un-Islamic, and claim that Muslims are religiously obliged to hate Christians and Jews. Most insidiously, the documents denounce moderate Muslims, especially those who advocate religious tolerance, as infidels. If a Muslim commits adultery or becomes a homosexual, one pamphlet — published by the Saudi government’s ministry of Islamic affairs — advises that “it would be lawful for Muslims to spill his blood and take his money.”
I am citing this study not merely to finger the Saudis, but also to show what we are up against. The Saudi king’s own Web site boasts of his support for mosques and schools in Lagos, Islamabad, Madrid, Buenos Aires and elsewhere. A friend reports recently seeing a new Saudi mosque in Kosovo. We have to assume that the materials found in the United States exist in all of those places, too.
To fight these ideas, friendly state visits from Laura Bush will not suffice. Neither will more Britney Spears songs for Muslim teenagers, which is what we play on U.S.-funded Farsi and Arabic radio in the Middle East. Instead, we need to monitor the intellectual and theological struggle for the soul of Islam, and we need to help the moderates win. This means making sure that counter-arguments are heard whenever and wherever Muslim clerics and intellectuals are talking, despite the impact of Saudi money.
The United States has engaged in a project like this once before. In the 1950s and ’60s, the West European left was also bitterly divided, with social democrats on one side and pro-Soviet communists on the other. We backed the social democrats. CIA money was used, for example, to found Encounter, a small but influential magazine whose editors promoted not just pro-Americanism but also the principles of democracy and capitalism, largely through allowing both sides to argue their cases.
I concede that the analogy is not exact, that the present case is far more difficult and that we have a long way to go. At the moment, the State Department probably spends more money denying visas to moderate Muslim scholars than it does funding magazines for them to write in. The traditional tools of public diplomacy — American libraries, Fourth of July parties, “citizen ambassadors” — are uniquely unsuited to the task of encouraging debate within Islam as well. But Hughes has nothing to lose by dropping the four “E’s,” going back to the rest of the alphabet, and thinking way, way outside the box. Judging by Bali, Madrid, London and Sharm el-Sheikh, not to mention New York and Washington, whatever we’re doing right now, it isn’t working.