After having spent two years studying in the United States in 1950, Sayyid Qutb, leading Islamic theologian of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who shaped the ideas of Islamists and terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, wrote an article entitled "The America That I Have Seen". In it he criticized the individual freedoms he had seen exercised, he was appalled at having seen unmarried men and women dancing together, losing themselves in lust, while the band played a revolting song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” He returned to Egypt convinced that the America is evil that had to be stopped. This came to be known as “Sayyid Qutb Syndrome” that seems to be experiencing its revival 60 years later.
When we think of the American culture we primarily think of the culture of the United States or the ethnic melting pot that the US is. The term American has, first and foremost, a nationalist connotation not the geographic one, and refers to the people who live in the US. Dictionary defines culture, among other meanings, as “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or a group“. Culture is a product of human work and thought-it is our traditions, our language, and our cuisine. It is what our grandma taught us, the way we live, sing and dance, it is the stuff the legends are made of, the stories we tell our children, the way we try to refine, enrich our attitudes and goals through education, travel and contacts with other cultures.
How should the United States use culture both to communicate and listen to other nations? The 2010 Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum will feature the political and cultural leaders who are now shaping the policies and practices of cultural diplomacy in the public and private sectors.
Keynote Speaker: Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Secretary of State (1997 – 2001)
Other speakers include:
The Honorable John Brademas, President Emeritus, New York University Elizabeth Diller, Architect Eric Fischl, Painter Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (invited) Chairman Jim Leach, National Endowment for the Humanities Congressman Jim Moran, U.S. House of Representatives Dr. Azar Nafisi, Author of Reading Lolita in Tehran His Excellency Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican Ambassador to the United States His Excellency Sameh Shoukry, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States
In Conversations Moderated by: Michael Dirda, Joseph Duffey, Dana Gioia, Frank Hodsoll, Philip Kennicott, Dorothy Kosinski, Eric Motley, and Cynthia Schneider.
Lunch will be served in the Phillips Collection courtyard.
In a recent Huffington Post article, 17-year old Maad Sharaf shares his thoughts about how a year abroad in the United States through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program has changed his life. Originally from Aden in the Republic of Yemen, Sharaf came to Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where he quickly learned that the image he had gotten about the United States, based mainly on media coverage in Yemen, did not correspond to reality:
“I thought America was all about huge buildings, exciting places, drunken people everywhere and going to war with every country. That was what we saw every day on television and in American movies. Unfortunately, we never saw the nice things about it or the very respectful people.”
Sharaf also had to learn that many Americans had negative images of Yemen and the Muslim world in general that they, too, ascribed to the media. When realizing this, he felt he had to become active:
“It was then that I decided I was responsible for teaching the American people in my community who we (Muslims) are as real people, and showing them that we are not the bad people they see in the news. I felt like I was not only representing Yemen, but also the Middle East and all the Islamic countries in the world.”
As Sharaf explains, he never got over the culture shock entirely but nevertheless considers his travel to the U.S. to have changed his life for the better. He discovered “that the best way to reflect a good image of your country, your family and your religion to people who don’t have any idea about where you are coming from is to be who you really are, wherever you are.”
Earlier this year, the British Council co-hosted an event in Brussels with Security Defence Agenda and NATO to discuss how “cultural” projects facilitate dialogue between groups, play a part in preventing conflict, healing post-conflict wounds, and potentially avoid conflicts based on misunderstand or mistrust. The video below are the highlights from this conference that I attended. It includes a post-event interview with British Council Chief Executive Martin Davidson.
I strongly recommend it to those interested in creating and supporting culture-based engagement pathways that to some may be “alternative” but are ultimately fundamental. One cannot hope to successfully engage in a struggle of minds and wills if one does not understand or empower the actors or their solutions to their circumstances.
This originally appeared on Huffington Post. It is gladly cross-posted here at Nick’s request.
Recent years have seen a welcome resurgence in U.S. Cultural Diplomacy, which after honorable service in the Cold War, sailed into the doldrums in the mid-1990s. Today, the State Department is reaching out to foreign publics in partnership with major private sector partners including Jazz at the Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music as well as maintaining its own program of visits, exhibitions and tours. While the new initiatives began under the administration of George W. Bush as a ‘soft power’ response to the challenges of the Global War on Terror, they seem an ideal fit for the priorities of the Obama administration, with its emphasis on ‘engagement’ and rebooting the global perception of the United States. At such a moment it is perhaps well to take stock and consider the nature of cultural diplomacy and how best to harness its strengths to advance America’s international priorities.
Matt’s blog has become a force to behold in the discussion about strategic communication, public diplomacy, and State/DOD relations. It has shined a light on what largely was a rarified, inside-the-beltway debate symptomatic of the old USIA’s domestic blank spot. What has been lacking are stories from the field outside the U.S. – examples of PD as it actually is conducted by PD professionals. Here’s one from my own experience that in many ways is typical.
I’ve run effective PD programs that didn’t cost Uncle Sam anything except my own time. I’ve run next to useless PD programs so flush that I couldn’t spend all the money Washington showered upon me. And I’ve run just about everything in between those extremes. As every experienced PAO knows, basic human grit, skill, and talent will go far in assembling a program, but a little bit of cash always helps. And it doesn’t have to be much, especially when compared to what other agencies spend.