"Islamic Extremists in Europe: The Public Diplomacy Response" - Tom C. Korologos, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium. Testimony before the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, DC April 5, 2006. (Found on Scoop, a news aggregator.)
...I will focus my remarks on a new approach to U.S. engagement of Muslims in Europe that we have tested successfully in Brussels. It is an example of the new public diplomacy based on dialogue, not monologue designed to supplement the extensive U.S. financial, intelligence, law enforcement, defense, private diplomatic, and other initiatives directed at Islamist extremism in Europe. It is also a model for generating not just a conference or two, but an entire movement of mainstream Muslims across Europe to ease Muslim alienation and combat extremism.
Public diplomacy is something I have worked on for years. I chaired the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and was a charter member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. I am a believer in public diplomacy and its role in reaching out to other nations in ways we can't with traditional diplomacy.
When I was on the BBG, the engineers brought us big maps showing "footprints" and the reach of our U.S. radio and TV transmitters and satellite broadcasts throughout the Middle East. They told us how many millions of Muslims we were reaching via Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV. But it occurred to me that we were missing the 15-20 million Muslims living in Western Europe.
When I went to Belgium in July of 2004 I made public diplomacy a priority. I discovered almost five percent of the population is Muslim. There are almost 500,000 Muslims in Belgium, largely from Turkey and Morocco. The Muslim community in Belgium, which includes many non-practicing members, is highly diverse. In addition to those of Moroccan and Turkish descent, it includes a number of other origins, each with their own mosques or traditions. From that grew the seed of our idea to build on the President's Europe-wide initiative to reach out to Muslim communities.
As Assistant Secretary Fried said earlier today, our Muslim engagement strategy rests on several goals including seeking to build mutual understanding with the United States. We realized that the United States required a way to listen to and speak with this important community.
Thus we have developed our main tools of dialogue and our public diplomacy programs, including exchanges, International Visitor Leadership Programs, sending American experts and embassy officials on speaking tours and engaging with the media. The President, Secretary Rice and Undersecretary Hughes have all spoken on the importance of these exchange programs and of their support for them.
Belgium provided a particularly propitious environment for such an effort. It has a long history of multiculturalism and multilingualism. In Belgium, religion is valued and supported. Public school students are required to take moral education and can choose from several varieties of Christianity, Judaism, Islam or secular studies, all given by teachers supported by the state. The state also supports religious institutions and has been moving over the past year to fulfill a more than decade long pledge to provide such support to Muslim institutions, channeled through the Muslim executive.
In Belgium Muslims vote and win elective office. Due to the fragmented nature of Belgian politics where several parties divide the vote and form shifting coalition governments, Muslims have clout. In the last regional elections for example, Muslims in Brussels won nearly a quarter of the seats, roughly their share of the population. The Muslim vote was responsible for a change in the political leaderships of the "capital of Europe." They voted mostly for one political grouping, but now, much like in U.S. politics, other parties are making a play for these votes. In addition, Belgium has made a visible effort to bring Muslims into government services including the police. This along with the fact that Muslims are not ghettoized into depressing high rise suburbs, explains the creation of a sense of participation.
Our Embassy in Belgium has been doing Muslim outreach for some time including with local and federal elected officials. Following the example of President Bush and Secretary Rice I held our first Iftar dinner shortly after I arrived and I met with leaders of the Muslim community as well as the elected Muslim Executive and with Muslim members of the Belgian Parliament.
But I am aware that there were other opportunities available for learning and understanding. There were no channels of communication between American Muslims and European Muslims in Belgium channels that could provide important tools to both communities through lessons learned about identity, balancing faith and nationality, and integration. When I made this realization and I realized the potential strength of building these relationships, I thought I would try to do something about it.
First, we conducted research and found that despite many differences such as socioeconomic status and migration histories, many Belgian and American Muslims share common experiences as minorities in largely Christian and secular Western societies.
Indeed many Belgian Muslims are skeptical about America. However, our research showed they are not mostly concerned about us. They are mostly concerned about their daily life in Belgium, and problems such as unemployment, discrimination, education, and bias in the media. That being the case, what could we do to engage them and not leave the Belgian government feeling we were meddling in their internal affairs? We know that in the United States there are approximately 3 to 6 million Muslims.
So, for Muslims living in minority status in Europe, it seemed to me that American Muslims are natural interlocutors. Despite their differences, both communities are striving to define themselves and fashion their lives in secular Western society.
We thought they'd have a lot to offer each other. We also wagered that American Muslims could perform the public diplomacy heavy-lifting that we in the embassy could not. After all, they have the life stories to tell each other and to connect with fellow Muslims.
Thus, after considerable planning, our Embassy in Brussels, together with non-governmental organizations and private sponsors from the United States and Belgium, brought together an impressive group of 32 American Muslims to meet with an equally impressive group of 65 Belgian Muslims. The purpose was to discuss everyday practical issues regarding Muslim participation in society. Our two-plus day dialogue, titled "Muslim Communities Participating in Society: A Belgian-U.S. Dialogue" occurred in Brussels last November.
It was a first-ever people-to-people exchange between American and Belgian Muslims, focusing on Muslim identity, civic life, economic opportunity, media portrayal, youth development and women's issues. It was NOT another academic or typical think tank exercise with experts lecturing from a podium about Muslims and at Muslims. This was Muslims talking with other Muslims. This was dialogue. Not monologue.
They shared their differences, their experiences and their frustrations but also their good practices and success strategies. We engaged the moderates in the hope there would be a coincidence of interest.
Was this risky? Was it ambitious? Yes. But I am happy to report it also was a success....
First, we gained the participation of the American and Belgian Muslim communities in a U.S. public diplomacy initiative despite skepticism many of them have about the United States. With a well-designed program created by professional facilitators, we framed and conducted the dialogue around domestic issues of importance to minorities. We created conditions for genuine dialogue of moderate Muslims to explore issues of mutual interest, share good practices and strategies for participating in society and identify ideas for future cooperation. We helped the Moroccan and Turkish Muslim communities in Belgium see how new forms of practical constructive action could address their real needs and hopes.
We have been able to call on conference alumni. When the Mohammed cartoons were published, we invited a group of them to meet with Assistant Secretary Fried and Farah Pandith from the National Security Council. Assistant Secretary Fried urged them to turn to other moderate and responsible Muslims throughout Europe to help diffuse the volatile cartoon issue.
Second, we reached out to Muslims in a subtle manner, on their terms for which they are thankful, and consequently they saw the U.S. government in a more positive light. They felt respect and that is essential to any relationship. American Muslims have craved an opportunity to serve their nation and in this venue they did.
Third, we attempted to empower Muslims and counter the alienation that can spur radicalism and even terrorism. We encouraged them to define themselves and Islam as peaceful and moderate. Both directly serve American interests in the War on Terror.
Fourth, by facilitating contacts with U.S. Muslim leaders for their community organizations, we helped enfranchise Muslims within the larger society so as to promote the long-term stability of Western, pluralistic democracy. As Assistant Secretary Fried pointed out in his testimony, Muslim integration is arguably one of the top challenges facing Western Europe today. Moving Muslims from the margins to the mainstream of society is essential. American Muslims have through their unique stories and experiences found ways to be proud and practicing Muslims and proud Americans who value freedom, liberty and democracy. Their challenges to integrate and develop their own American identity are powerful lessons.
Fifth, we displayed no U.S. superiority. We professed no easy answers and sought to learn from the participants. We said our two societies shared the common challenge and goal of Muslim integration. Indeed our U.S. participants were impressed by the level of political clout of Belgian Muslims. We reached out to our Belgian friends to work with us. And ultimately, they did....
I've excerpted only a small part of Amb. Korologos' tesitmony. If you're interested in this subject, click through to read the whole text.
I'm a big fan of exchanges and outreach, but the further I read this description of US overtures to Muslims in Belgium, the more uneasy I felt. The programs and initiatives seem sensibly planned and well executed, but they rest on a couple of problematic underlying assumptions.
One is that this initiative defines its target public on the basis of a single attribute: that they are Muslim. As Amb. Korologos suggests in his testimony, there are other other issues that affect Muslims in Europe and that contribute to political extremism. These include issues of social and economic exclusion that many other communities struggle with, in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. This initiative, though, seems to pass by the opportunity to engage audience members in considering their economic and social experience as being more widely shared, or to understand it as a social and not an exclusively Muslim problem.
The initiative also rewards people for identifying themselves as Muslim. Organizations get grant funding and people get access to exchanges because they are described as Muslim. In the long run, that approach only institutionalizes the barriers you're trying to cross. A Bosnian journalist once told me that he thought one of the biggest blunders the US made in the Balkans was breaking up VOA's Serbo-Croatian service into three separate broadcasts (Serb, Croat, and Bosniak). It reinforced the idea that these were three separate and competing groups, and it created career tracks that rewarded journalists for identifying with a particular group.
Finally, I'm deeply bothered by the notion that the US government ought to be working to empower and enfranchise Belgian Muslims, or to shape the way that Muslims anywhere think about their faith. If we really have a problem with the status of Belgium's Muslim community, we should take up the matter with Belgian authorities and opinion leaders. And we have no business anywhere trying to promote a particular interpretation of any religion.