Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Sara Khan: British Muslim Girls and Extremism

In my last blog, Baronness Warsi: "British Muslims will only speak up for British values when they know they will be heard", I observed the need for greater engagement, inclusiveness, listening and trust-building among British Muslims. On 29 March 2015, The Observer published another thought-provoking and significant essay by Sara Khan, co-director of Inspire:* 'British Muslims girls and extremism: what I learned on my journey across the UK' (British Muslim girls and extremism). Khan provides a logical progression of Baronness Warsi's ideas and takes them to the next level. I will list the main points as they relate to the broader theme of strategic communications:

1.  There is 'no uniform Muslim community'. Poor engagement fails to understand that Islam is a faith of many denominations, and our tendency to homogenise British Muslims blinds us to the 'diversity and complexity of views' within communities. That is understandable: governments and the media (especially the media) prefer simple problems and simple solutions. But in this case ignorance amplifies the problem and obstructs the creation of acceptable and legitimate solutions.

2.  Language and education are important. Sara Khan discovered generational divides which prevent communication between parents and children. This extends beyond language to different 'Cultural, religious and gender expectations' between the generations. Moreover a lack of theological knowledge among the older generations means that children seek answers about their faith from elsewhere:

Inevitably, some of these children go online to find their answers - and extreme websites are there awaiting their curiosity. Many teenagers feel their parents are not credible authorities; mothers, for their part, told us they were unaware of what educational resources existed to challenge extremist ideology.   

3.  The climate of fear since 2001 has impacted on the way Islamic youth see themselves, their community and their relationship to the UK: 'There is an identity crisis of the 9/11 generation, children who have grown up under a spotlight of suspicion, affecting their sense of belonging'. I have argued elsewhere that knee-jerk reactions by governments to the threat of domestic extremism can have negative effects on relationships with Muslim communities.  

4.  The possible consequences are enormous: 'This ... leaves the mosques to fill the gap. ... [M]any women felt that some mosques were ill-equipped to teach counter-narratives with any confidence'. Some mosques have said this is not their responsibility, rather it must take place in the home.

5. There has been what Sara Khan describes as 'pushback', and she describes how imams have moved to the virtual world to engage with younger Muslims. In London, scholars and imams gathered to launch an online magazine, Haqiqah (The Truth), designed to answer questions about faith, explain verses from the Koran and counter the simple ISIS narratives. Imamsonline.com is also a source of information and and a place for dialogue (imamsonline.com). Using Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube imamsonline.com provides links to discussions and information on 'culture', 'chaplaincy', 'civic faith' 'interfaith' issues and 'community engagement', all important themes in reclaiming Islam as a peaceful religion. This makes communication timely, accessible and, most important, relevant for the audiences most vulnerable to extremist messages.  

6.  Sara Khan does not shy away from identifying problems within the Muslim community, and focuses on the position of women: 'These women know that challenging extremism also means standing up to patriarchy and gender roles that have the contribution of women in both home and public life'. Women, says Khan, lack confidence to engage with institutions, such as the police, 'Partly because of a lack of trust; partly a lack of engagement and dialogue.' But trust will only be created through greater levels of engagement and dialogue - through actively listening to and hearing the voices of these communities, and discussing with them problems and their possible solutions.

Sara Khan concludes 'Empower women to counter extremism and it is they who will take on this battle'. Although she ends her essay, 'this is not a "community" challenge', clearly the roots of trust and credibility lie within the communities themselves, their grassroots work and through initiatives such as Haqiqah and imamsonline.com. As I have argued in previous posts on this subject, government and state agencies must do much more to bring these grassroots activists and community workers into the conversation about the problems facing Muslims in the UK today, and to work together in partnership with organisations like Inspire ('empowering women, strengthening societies') to combat radicalism among the young.

*Inspire is a counter-extremism and human rights organisation - wewillinspire.com


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Baroness Warsi: 'Muslims will speak up for British values only when they know they will be heard'

The Observer has published an extremely important and perceptive article by Baroness Warsi, former Minister of State for Faith and Communities ('Muslims will speak up for British values ...'). When few British politicians and members of government - representing whichever party - have little understanding of the basic principles of communication, public diplomacy and the need to engage with aggrieved and marginalised communities, Baroness Warsi reveals herself an astute critic of current policies towards the UK's Muslim population.

The first problem she identifies is 'non-engagement': '

For nearly six years, firstly under Labour and then the coalition, governments have adopted a policy of non-engagement with a wide range of community organisations and activists. Many groups and individuals have been defined as "beyond the pale". Indeed, the coalition even set up a high-level committee to decide whether a group or individual was someone ministers could engage with.
In other words, there is not only evidence of a clear policy of exclusion, thus dividing further the very communities one wishes to reach out to, but what are the criteria for exclusion? Who decides which organisations are beyond the pale and according to which criteria? This should only be decided in consultation with members of the Muslim communities themselves. Only they will know which groups should and should not be included in dialogue, and by involving them in a conversation the government would be increasing the legitimacy of their policies.

Baroness Warsi then uses two words that are the core of any credible and successful public diplomacy  strategy: friendship and trust. As we know, building trust among your audience is crucial for both credibility and legitimacy. Baroness Warsi refers to friendship and trust when recounting the response to a letter sent by the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles (whom I remember very well as the leader of Bradford City Council when I was growing up there in the 1980s) to more than 1000 mosques:

A letter out of the blue to a mosque that is potentially affiliated to an organisation like the Muslim Council of Britain - with whom the government has refused to engage - creates a climate where even the most benign of correspondence can become toxic.   
She then uses another word that is familiar to all of us researching and teaching public diplomacy:

It makes it appear as if the government is neither listening not genuine in its intentions. And it provokes a negative response, irrespective of the true motive. 

Listening is the key activity in any communication strategy. For one thing, listening to the very communities you wish to engage means you have a greater insight into how the members of those communities think and form opinions which can then inform your own communications with them. Listening also provides the basis for empathy and understanding that might make for better policy-making. It helps build trust, but unfortunately Baroness Warsi sees the persistence of a 'trust deficit':

We needed to bring more people into the fold rather than increasingly adopt positions which pushed groups and individuals out to the fringe. We will fight extremism better if we all feel like we are in the same team, where communities feel listened to, where answers are found collectively and where engagement with communities is broad and deep.      

I have written previously on the need for a more inclusive approach to relations with the UK's Muslim communities, and the urgency of downplaying the belligerent knee-jerk reactions that have encouraged the creation of a military-sounding 'taskforce' to 'confront' extremism (British Taskforce to confront extremismA Marked Man in America). Baroness Warsi's perceptive understanding of the problems - residing mainly within government, rather than within the Muslim communities - and her approach to their solution, based on engagement, inclusiveness, listening and building trust, suggests that she is best placed to form a new strategy towards Islam in the UK.

Monday, 22 December 2014

BBC Interview with Xu Lin about Confucius Institutes

The BBC's Shanghai correspondent, John Sudworth, has interviewed Xu Lin, the head of Hanban which is the state ministry responsible for China's Confucius Institutes. An edited version of the interview can be viewed here Interview with Xu Lin.

This is an extraordinary interview on many levels, not least Ms Xu's response to questions about her blatant interference in an academic conference earlier this year. I wrote a post about this incident as one of several 'public diplomacy faux pas', accessible here When to say nothing.

What is most surprising in this interview is not what she said in defence of the Confucius Institutes. Like any government minister across the world, Ms Xu is required to provide an official response to critical questions. Rather, most alarming is her logic: John Sudworth has no right to ask questions about Taiwan because it is a Chinese issue and only the Chinese can address it. This was an entirely inappropriate answer to the question of why she had ripped promotional material about the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation from the programme of an academic conference. It makes no sense in the context of the interview and undermines the more positive tone of her answers to other questions. It also provides the framing for the interview and means that any review will focus on the more dramatic and confrontational portion of the interview, rather than the substance. John Sudworth's decision to post online Ms Xin's request for him to to edit out altogether the question about the conference in Portugal and his refusal to do so means that this and not the cultural diplomacy of the Confucius Institutes become the story. Thus Xu Lin revealed that the Chinese government has much to learn about how the media work, and any claims of communication professionalism among government officials are premature. The interview was yet another public diplomacy faux pas.    

Moreover, Ms Xu resorted to complaining she had not been given in advance any question about the conference in Portugal and therefore refused to answer. This was her chance to explain and, dare we say, even apologise for her violation of academic freedom earlier this year. Any critic seeking evidence of how Confucius Institutes are not simply agents of cultural diplomacy and language teaching will find it here: Xu Lin not only refused to answer difficult questions, she also politicised the Confucius Institutes and reinforced the idea that they are led by dogmatists.

Just as we are assured that China's government communications machinery is becoming more professional, more sensitive to the demands of the modern media age, Xu Lin's interview tells a different story. It does little to reassure viewers that Confucius Institutes are not required to pursue a political agenda decided in Beijing.  The interview is a crowning end to a year in which Chinese public diplomacy has taken one step forward and two steps back.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Lipstick on a Pig: America’s Soft Power is Recoverable

In international politics actions always speak louder than words. Governments claiming to exercise soft power do well to remember this, for how they behave will forever tell a far more commanding and convincing narrative than what they say. When successive US presidents have demanded and actively promoted the spread of democratic values around the world, and agencies representing the state have participated in activities that can be defined only as violations of human rights, America’s credibility suffers.

Such a clear discrepancy between rhetoric and behaviour also exposes the US to allegations of hypocrisy. Should we be surprised that China’s international television service, CCTV-America, has focused overwhelmingly on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, while almost ignoring entirely the clampdown against protestors in Hong Kong?

The publication of the US Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme during George W. Bush’s presidency poses significant soft power challenges. It not only highlights the systematic torture undertaken in the name of national security, but also documents the embarrassing subversion of law and justice by a state that emphasises such values as the core of its foreign policy. We also need to remind ourselves that this is the same administration that asked repeatedly after 9/11: ‘Why do they hate us?’ The publication of the Senate’s report points us towards a possible answer.
Can the US recover its credibility? Yes it can. By following a clear communication strategy, the US can salvage its soft power without the present government having to distance itself in an unconvincing way from its predecessor. And the way to do this is by focusing more on the process of how the world came to know about these terrible acts and less on the acts themselves, as well as by outlining how the US intends to deal with the consequences.

The plan begins with culpability and humility. The CIA and key members of the Bush administration must hold up their hands and admit that these activities are wrong and inexcusable. Any attempt to justify them as part of an anti-terrorist strategy or as carried out in the name of national security has already backfired, and it is a defence that is no longer relevant when global public and media opinion is clear that two wrongs do not make a right.  A clear and modest, self-critical admission of guilt is required. CIA apologists must not be allowed to control the narrative and shape public opinion about the report, and they must not be allowed to employ alternative, less malignant labels such as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ to describe acts of torture. When their voice is heard, when Vice-President Dick Cheney calls the report ‘full of crap’, the world needs to know that it is heard because America is a democracy and pluralism is encouraged. Within democracies disagreement is expected and can be healthy.

Second, President Obama himself must launch an investigation into the abuses documented in the report and commit America to bringing to trial those responsible. Obama’s response so far has been unsatisfactory: ‘Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,’ he said in a written statement, ‘I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong, in the past.’ This will not satisfy the US’s critics around the world who demand both answers and justice, not just promises that it will never happen again. For American soft power, this is too little, too late.  

The third component of the strategy requires the US government to marshal its entire public diplomacy machinery in a global communication campaign. There is an urgent need to highlight and explain to the world how the publication of the report reflects fundamental values of the American political culture: a commitment to accountability, transparency and scrutiny of government behaviour, as well as the checks and balances that the Founding Fathers built into their creation; and when government agencies break the law, the mechanisms are in place to make sure those responsible are brought to justice, regardless of position or status. This is not spin, a communication activity now tarnished in public opinion by its association with deceit. Rather, it is an understanding that the strengths of the American political culture have a valuable role to play in crafting a measured and accurate response to serious criticisms against it. But transparency and accountability can only be effective themes for public diplomacy if the government explains why only a redacted 525-page summary of a 6,700 page report has been released. There must be a communication strategy in place to deal with the inevitable question: What else are they hiding from us?    

In the modern information age, credibility is the currency of politics; and credibility is generated by building trust, authority and legitimacy, and by ensuring that how you behave is consistent with the values you profess. More importantly, when you are found out – when parts of the state machinery violate the constitution and international law, as well as the core principles you, your government and your nation hold dear and which you promote to others as an ideal to others around the world – how you respond is critical in helping to restore your credibility. Soft power depends on doing the right thing, and being seen to be doing the right thing. As President Obama has noted, ‘this report reminds us … that the character of our country is to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.’

However, there is no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the best means for maintaining credibility is not to commit the crimes in the first place. The Senate report on CIA torture will cause ripples of indignation around the world and damage American soft power abroad in the short term. If its publication also encourages a period of introspection and critical questioning in the US, there remains hope for America’s otherwise tarnished image in the longer term. Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programme and the repeated violations of national sovereignty by drone strikes suggest that there is still work to do, and that the US’s soft power is far from guaranteed.    

Friday, 29 August 2014

The F**kwit Factor

This is not a post about public diplomacy or international communications, but it does address an issue I would like to share here.

Knowing little about the world's 4th most populous country, I am currently reading Elisabeth Pisani's wonderful and recommended Indonesia etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation (Granta 2014). I had no idea that Indonesia is made up of 13,466 islands; that 'Jakarta tweets more than any other city on earth,' and that 'around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook' in a country where '80 million live without electricity' (p.3).

Reading Pisani's description of what a British diplomat called the 'Fuckwit Factor', it struck me that in political analysis we sometimes lose sight of human error and fallibility. Shit happens, we are told; and perhaps this can have clear political consequences. Perhaps we read too much into the everyday decisions made by political elites - see grand ambitions, strategies and conspiracies - when in fact they may simply be the result of unexpected intrusions on everyday life.

The relevant passage in Indonesia etc. (pp.32-3):

Around the table, journalists, diplomats and the braver Indonesian intellectuals put forward their theory about who was in, who was out, whether the absence of this minister from that cocktail party signalled that [Suharto] was unhappy with a faction of the military or was a warning to a particular business conglomerate. Since nothing much was known, everything was possible.
A young British diplomat named Jon Benjamin ... frequently came down on the side of what he called the Fuckwit Factor. Behind all the smoke and mirrors, the most likely reason that his minister was not at that cocktail party was that his driver forgot to put petrol in the car. The cancellation of the joint military exercises with Singapore, the postponement of the trade mission to the US, the blackout at the radio station scheduled to broadcast a vice-presidential address: again and again Jon would advance the theory that someone, somewhere, just fucked up. As events unfolded, Jon was often proved right.    

I am sure that any Cold War Soviet or China specialists reading this post will be familiar with the pressure to know who's in and who's out; where is Comrade X on the podium this year, and what does it reveal?

Maybe the lesson is that we need to consider the possible intervention of the Fuckwit Factor a little more often in our analysis of political events, behaviour and decisions.        

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

China: When To Say Nothing

Few governments spend as much on their international outreach - what one might call 'soft power' - than China; and few governments get it wrong so spectacularly and so frequently. The main explanation for this lack of success is the failure to understand the first lesson of public diplomacy: Actions always speak louder than words; and that sometimes, saying or doing nothing is the most strategic course to take.

The discussion about how China's behaviour, at home and abroad, undermines its public diplomacy among the international community has a long history. The literature on China's soft power refers repeatedly to how China's record on human rights, democracy, the treatment of dissidents, and freedom of speech, as well as its behaviour towards Tibet and Xinjiang, challenge the more positive narratives that Beijing prefers to project in its international communication. And yet it seems that the Chinese government has difficulty in grasping that its response to adverse events and criticisms may also have negative consequences for its public diplomacy. In 2014 three events in just two months nurture this critical perspective.

The first event occurred in London on 4 June 2014, the 25th anniversary of the suppression by the People's Liberation Army of the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Two women, one of whom was Wang Ti-Anna, the daughter of a democracy activist, were shoved away from the Chinese embassy in London by staff who also threw to the ground the flowers the two women wished to leave on the steps ... and this happened in front of television news cameras from across the world. This not only indicates that staff in the embassy fail to understand how public diplomacy works - do not react in ways that will inflame the situation and give journalists the story they seek; if in doubt say and do nothing - but it also suggests that embassy staff had to be seen, by their superiors inside the building or in Beijing, to be doing something, even if it results in bad publicity. You can see the BBC's footage of the event here: Chinese embassy in London

A second related event occurred on 18th August 2014. Clive Palmer, a member of the Australian Parliament, launched a tirade on live television against China and the Chinese. His vile, offensive and racist language has been reported all around the world and has given Palmer more international publicity than he deserves. The Chinese embassy in Canberra should have been advised to issue a statement condemning Palmer and his remarks, but reassuring Australians that the Chinese government recognises he was not speaking for all Australians; that Australia remains an important and friendly country to China; and that relations would not be disrupted by the inanity of one man's comments. That is diplomacy. Instead, China's state-owned newspaper, the Global Times, decided to respond in its English language edition with its own excessive zeal, claiming that Palmer 'serves as a symbol that Australian society has an unfriendly attitude towards China'.  The editorial continued by recommending that Australia 'must be marginalized in China's global strategy'. Again such ill-advised rhetoric only inflames further the situation, demonstrates that China's public diplomacy is neither as sophisticated nor as sensitive as Beijing would like to think, and shows yet again that China is unable to respond in a rational way to criticism. Rather, the government decided to generalise about a whole country from the ramblings of one man, something the Chinese repeatedly accuse westerners of doing about China. Clearly the Chinese government and its embassies need better advice on how to handle the international media. You can see Palmer's outburst here: Clive Palmer and read the Global Times article here Global Times.

The third event is more sinister and perhaps undermines China's soft power more than the other two incidents put together. On 22 July 2014 at the annual conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies in Portugal, China's Vice-Minister Xu Lin, Director-General of the Confucius Institutes, impounded all copies of the conference programme and refused to release them until organisers removed pages she deemed offensive. What was so distasteful for Xu was an acknowledgement in the programme that part of the conference was sponsored by Taiwan's Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK) Foundation. Several pages including an advertisement for the CCK Foundation were ripped from a programme which the Confucius Institute had no role in funding. In a published statement (statement) the President of the EACS, Roger Greatrex, said: 'Providing support for a conference does not give any sponsor the right to dictate parameters to academic topics or to limit open academic presentation and discussion, on the basis of political requirements'. At a time when the role of Confucius Institutes - long celebrated as a shining example of China's public and cultural diplomacy - is being scrutinised closely and debated across the world, but especially in the US, Xu Lin could not have picked a worse time to assert her imaginary authority. It is not surprising that headlines in western media adopted critical, sometimes hostile language in reporting and commenting on this news: "Censorship at the China Studies Meeting" (Inside Higher Education); "China fails the soft power test" (China Spectator); "Beijing's Propaganda Lessons: Confucius Institute officials are agents of Chinese censorship" (Wall Street Journal). Academic institutions will now have reason to be more suspicious of Confucius Institutes, while those who have long suspected their political agenda will have far more credibility.

The lesson here for China is very clear: Think before you speak; think before you act. What you do in response to something that you may find unfavourable or even offensive may backfire and ultimately undermine the credibility of your soft power campaign. When in doubt, say and do nothing.      

Monday, 11 August 2014

Cultural Diplomacy and Government Funding

On the eve of a discussion with colleagues in Prague about Chinese Cultural Diplomacy, my attention has been grabbed by the spill-over into culture of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. I write this as an agnostic about Cultural Diplomacy, someone who is still trying to work through the relationship between the cultural and political.      

The Tricycle Theatre in London, which had been due to host the UK Jewish Film Festival in November, has asked the organisers to 'reconsider' its sponsorship by the Israeli embassy. The Theatre's artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, said: "Given the situation in Israel and Gaza, we do not believe that the festival should accept funding from any party to the current conflict" and offered to replace the embassy's money with its own (The Tricycle Theatre and the UK Jewish Film Festival).

On the surface there seems little merit in the Tricycle Theatre's decision. It is possible to argue that all governments subsidise culture; it is difficult to know how many of the smaller cultural industries, performers and artists could survive without government subsidies. And subsidising does not necessarily mean interference or control. What we know from the case of the Jewish Film Festival is that funding from the Israeli embassy was not donated with any preconditions about what can and cannot be shown; there was no interference in a programme which included a Palestinian story, participation by a Palestinian actor, and a documentary examining in a critical way the role of the Israeli security forces in Gaza.

However, the Tricycle Theatre decided to let culture be culture, and that the Jewish Film Festival is best served by ensuring detachment from institutionalised politics; that the films themselves may or may not be political, but the power of interpretation ultimately lies with the audience; and that the artistic integrity of the Jewish Film Festival is far more important that the £1,400 offered by the Israeli embassy. The danger is that by accepting government money such Festivals are associating themselves - and their staff, volunteers and even their audiences who have no say in the matter - with political agendas beyond their control. It is worth reminding ourselves that although the media reporting this story have used the word 'boycott', there is no evidence of any intention to boycott the Festival, only the sponsorship offered by the Israeli embassy; the Tricycle Theatre agreed to fund its involvement in the Jewish Film Festival.

Cultural Diplomacy is founded on the principle that culture can transcend politics; that in times of crisis it can promote mutual understanding, build relationships, and generate familiarity with otherwise unfamiliar ways of looking at the world. Regardless of Israeli sponsorship these aims may have been satisfied. However, Cultural Diplomacy works best when the cultural industries maintain as much distance as possible from government, government agendas and government money. Accepting sponsorship by the Israeli embassy at such a difficult and sensitive time may have unnecessarily politicised the films, confused for many audiences the differences between Israeli and Jewish (the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe is a disturbing and a thoroughly ugly response to Israel's offensive in Gaza), and thereby undermined the credibility of the Festival's Cultural Diplomacy credentials.

And lest anyone is sceptical about the ability of culture to transcend politics, even in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, take a look at the work of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late cultural commentator, Edward Said, the Orchestra brings together young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian Territories and other Arab nations. Not everyone has seen the merit of this conversation, and the Orchestra has been subject to abuse and even boycotts; but the musicians agree that sharing their joy of music with each other and with audiences is far more important than their political identity. Watch an introduction to the Orchestra here: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra