March 2, 2009

Reshaping Muslim World Narratives?

The Rand Corporation is working up a new proposal to 'reshape Muslim world narratives'. This proposal states that the basic problem of Muslim countries is the narrative they possess (that is, the life story that contributes to their identity) is basically 'hostile' and 'violent'. Thus RAND's project " aims to develop national social and historical narratives that can enhance positive cohesion in Muslim world nations." According to the briefing:

"The benefits of such an outcome are obvious. A narrative of this kind can help these societies clarify common goals and direction. It can lend sense' to tragic events of the near and distant past. It can lay the foundation for reconciliation and shared national identity. It can address the deficit of dignity and pride that many believe are at the heart of the current anger and violence emanating from the region."

The author of the briefing is impressed with the US narrative, because it:

"allows each member of society, regardless of which side his or ancestors were on, to identify with all sides of a past conflict--with those who suffered an injustice, with those who were a party to injustice, with the losing side, with the winning side—while still embracing the outcome as the right thing to have happened. Additionally, those whose ancestors were not involved can still identify with the broad themes of unjust suffering, courageous resistance, social advancement, and progress towards greater justice."

So basically there are no losers in the US narrative, only winners, because the US always moves forward in the spirit of justice. While this is, at best, insulting to the thousands of activists who gave their lives in order to make justice a reality for the oppressed and poor of the United States, it is also symptomatic of the false historical narrative of American exceptionalism which we as a nation still believe in (most of us). And the RAND would like to export this model:

"In Phase I, a team of historians, educators, media experts, and political analysts will disassemble the American narrative, identifying the essential components of the narrative, including its themes, catalytic events, and integrative techniques, and create a neutral template from these for application to other nations."

This is the sort of dangerous cultural hubris that should be avoided, not encouraged in US foreign policy. The problem is not the narrative; Arabs are not idiots, and they are quite capable of crafting a resonant historical narrative given the opportunity. I seriously doubt they require the assistance of a special US project. And from the little traveling I have done, residents of these countries are quite capable on the whole, of separating US policy from US citizens.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting the intent of the project, but it seems to me that the real purpose of this project, is to get those who are clear that the US is responsible for a great many of their security issues (i.e. in the targeted nations of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq) to stop thinking of the US as an invader and more as a trusted ally. But you cannot change the facts on the ground. No amount of narrative re-shaping can undo the chaos the US has left in the wake of not one, but two invasions of majority Muslim countries in the past eight years.

Instead, US foreign policy should start from the premise that people are quite capable of crafting their own positive narrative, which will place the US in a constellation of relationships with other nations, IF the US will stop playing carrot-and-stick with Syria, stop propping up the corrupt Mubarak regime, and end the Iraqi occupation. Trying to cram false positivity into an explosive situation will most assuredly have an adverse effect: the US will be seen (correctly) as engaging in cultural propaganda and this will embolden reactionary regimes even further.


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