Winning The Arab Street

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 4

Military victories in Iraq and Afghanistan do little to alleviate continued U.S. defeats on the most important front in the War on Terror – the war of ideas. A recent report by the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, a subcommittee of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy created to provide oversight of U.S. attempts to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics, states:

America has not excelled in the struggle of ideas in the Arab and Muslim world. As the director of the Pew Research Center said earlier this year, attitudes toward the United States “have gone from bad to worse” [as] “the bottom has fallen out of Arab and Muslim support for the United States.” The Arab and Muslim world, however, cannot be addressed in isolation. Animosity toward the U.S. is part of a broader crisis worldwide. What is required is not merely tactical adaptation but strategic, and radical, transformation.(1)

Perhaps most influential in the continued deterioration of Arab perceptions of the United States is the Arab satellite broadcasting network, al-Jazeera. Since its creation in 1996, al-Jazeera has become the CNN of the Arab world, reaching 35 million viewers. To counter this vast outlet of anti-American sentiment, the U.S. funded the creation of Radio Sawa. Operated by the International Board of Broadcasters, Radio Sawa has established a reputation in the Middle East for reaching out to the Muslim world by devoting the majority of its broadcasting content to Arabic and Western pop music, focusing its Arabic language service upon listeners below thirty. A recent AC Nielsen study showed that Radio Sawa led other international broadcasts in five Middle Eastern countries, with 31 percent listenership among the general population, and 42 percent in the all-important 15-29 age group.”(2) Why then is the U.S. losing this battle for the support of the ‘Arab Street’?

Despite conventional wisdom, Radio Sawa programming targets precisely the wrong audience, thereby unwittingly sowing the seeds of defeat in the struggle for Arab hearts and minds. While it retains some popularity among young, educated, professional Arabs, Radio Sawa’s hip-hop broadcasts do not reach the real powerbrokers in Middle Eastern societies: tribal leaders. Throughout the Arab world, tribal leaders act as decision makers and informal community leaders, having a decisive impact on the values and behaviors of the youth on the ‘Arab Street’.

In order to understand the impact of tribal leaders, we must consider typical power structures in rural and urban Muslim communities, both in the Middle East and in the West. We must bear in mind, for instance, that children reared in a traditional Muslim community must obey two figures outside of their family: the village elder and the local religious leader, or sheik. Furthermore, it is important to note that the sheik controls the elder and therefore has the greater authority. If the U.S. hopes to be successful in swaying public opinion on the ‘Arab Street’, it must target these leaders.

As the United States weighs its options for formatting TV and radio broadcasting to counter the effectiveness of Arab stations like al-Jazeera, it would be worthwhile for the American policymaking community to take into account the manner in which the ‘Arab Street’ listens to radio and television. For Arab audiences, TV and radio broadcasting provide their most important link to the outside world. It is not a matter of listening briefly to short news releases in a car while traveling to an office or home; American officials should understand that Arab listeners, particularly unemployed individuals, use radio and television as an integral part of their everyday lives. They are prepared to sit in a local coffee house and listen to extended programs for hours or more in order learn more about a given topic.

If steps were taken to engage these critical leaders America might begin to regain the informational advantage in the Muslim world, winning over the important tribal elders residing in the rural regions of the Middle East – an area, it should be noted, where Radio Sawa does reach. In places like Iraq, this strategy might play a critical role in bringing community leaders to the side of the United States, thereby turning the tide on this front in the war on terror.

Overcoming the Soviet Legacy

America won the war of ideas with Communism because it won the sympathy of the ‘Soviet Street’. Now the United States seeks to apply its Cold War experience to present-day struggles with Islamists and Baathists. Direct application of the old paradigm, however, does much to impede progress toward vital U.S. objectives. Previous experience offers policymakers little or no help in dealing with the current struggle over ideas. Only through recognizing the significant differences between today’s ‘Arab Street’ and yesterday’s ‘Soviet Street’ will a winning strategy be forged that can overcome the efforts by al-Jazeera and other similar outlets to cast the United States as the enemy of Islam.

Most fundamentally, Soviet and Arab propagandists differ in their construction of the opposition between themselves and the West. To understand this, we need only look at Soviet and Arab propaganda’s description of this perceived dichotomy. The core message of Soviet propaganda was: ‘Our life is good and Western life is bad. We are happy and we do not need the West’. Soviet leaders erected the Iron Curtain in order to prohibit Soviet people from discovering the positives of Western life. Communist leaders had little difficulty in carrying out this agenda, as the few foreigners who managed through exceptional circumstances to live within the Soviet Union did so under strict KGB surveillance, aimed at block contact between them and ordinary Soviet people.

After the Second World War, the United States created the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, working with the BBC and Deutche Welle to provide Soviet people with information about Western life; giving them the opportunity to see the better standard of living available in the West. In spite of all the efforts of Soviet propagandists, people living in the USSR and the Eastern bloc began to believe that what came from America was good. Even the word ‘American’ became a synonym of the word ‘perfect’ in Soviet youth slang. And vice versa – the ‘Soviet street’ rejected things issuing from the Communist leadership. Those living behind the Iron Curtain admired Western dissidents and similarly considered Soviet defectors who fought their way through prison and repression to get to the West heroes. The United States achieved its goal of establishing for itself a positive connotation in the heart and mind of the ordinary Soviet person.

Adapting to the Arab Mindset

Unlike the Soviet bloc, Arab countries have a considerable American and Western presence through military and civilian projects which have a visible role for local people. No Iron Curtain separates the Arab people from the outside world. Ordinary Muslims have had a chance to find out that life in the USA and other western countries is better than in their own, and realizing this discrepancy, they blame their Arab governments. Thus, local Arab leaders are often placed in a situation where they need to convincingly answer the question, ‘Why is my life so much worse than the life of the ordinary Westerner?’ Local officials, militant Islamists, Baathists cannot claim, as their Soviet counterparts did, ‘Our life is good, and Western life is bad’. An Arab audience rejects the diametric principle of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Instead Arab leaders answer, ‘Your life is bad precisely because the life of Westerners is so good’. An essential element of U.S. broadcasts and policy in general, then, must provide an aggressive refutation of this claim.

In attempting to link the ‘good’ and the ‘positive’ with the United States in the heart and mind of the ‘Arab Street’, policy makers must again adapt their strategy to suit the current situation. Accurate, fact-based news and information allowed ordinary Soviet citizens to see through the rhetoric of ‘the good Communist life’ peddled by Soviet governments. However, regardless of the success of this approach during the Cold War, the Western norm of balanced news media damages Western credibility among Arab audiences. According to the ‘Arab Street’, when Americans address their deficiencies openly, or criticize their President, politicians or army commanders, it is perceived as weakness. In the eyes of the Arab audience this makes the U.S. look miserable. To cite one example, during the Iraq war, the U.S. Congress sponsored Radio Free Iraq (RFI). RFI broadcasted Democratic criticism of President Bush, but by doing so inadvertently supported anti-American claims being made by al-Jazeera. To win the war of ideas against militant Islamists and Baathists the United States should ensure that the presentation of American images, ideas and values should be strong and ‘one-dimensional’. Hence, it is imperative that the United States abandon its peace-time principle of ‘balanced information’ until peace comes to the region.


To win the War on Terror, the United States and its allies must win the battle over the hearts and minds of the ‘Arab Street’. No longer can the West rely on Cold War methodologies and preconceived notions of an opponent by simply provides an alternative vision of the future. Policy makers must understand that the message on the ‘Arab Street’ is that the lifestyle of the West is the reason why ordinary Muslims suffer. This argument must be countered using wartime methods and the active promotion of a unified image of a beneficent America. Consideration must be paid to the manner in which an Arab audience receives and filters its information. Most importantly, the proper audience must be identified and aggressively targeted if the United States is to be successful.


1. Changing Minds Winning Peace -a new strategic direction for U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim world, Report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, Submitted to the Committee on Appropriations U.S. House of Representatives, October 1, 2003, page 15.

2. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Statement on “Changing Minds, Winning Peace,” A Report Released by The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy on October 8, 2003,