Monday, September 17, 2012

Communications as a Negative Force

As positive a force as communications is, every strategist knows — because history has provided ample evidence — that communications can also be employed as a negative force. Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse Tong and Joseph Stalin are well-known examples of leaders who effectively communicated messages that resulted in the deaths of millions and the destruction of cities and countries.

We are now in the throes of another example of negative communications, one that is also causing death and destruction … but it’s not emanating from the lips of a dictator. Rather, it is coming over the internet and has been crafted by a man who calls himself “Sam Bacile,” whom no one ever heard of before the protests erupted.

Bacile and a few rabid anti-Muslims — individuals who have no official U.S. standing at all — developed a film, “Muhammad’s Trial,” that the Associated Press described as “an amateur cast performing a wooden dialogue of insults [including philandering and child abuse] described as revelations about Muhammad [Islam’s Prophet], whose obedient followers are presented as a cadre of goons.”

The trailer for the two-hour movie found its way to YouTube… and then all hell broke loose.

Protests led by ultra-conservative Muslims against this so-called “American film” have broken out in 20 countries. Our Libyan Ambassador and three of his aides were killed. While U.S. Administration officials suspect that the Libyan embassy violence was part of a terrorist plot that used the protests as a cover. This and subsequent — though less deadly — incidents in Cairo, Sydney and elsewhere were triggered by the perceived ridicule of Islam’s Prophet.

Here’s what baffles me. The film was not released by the U.S. government; therefore, no one officially sanctioned this film as representing the views of the U.S. So why would sensitive and sensible Muslims attribute this to anything more than the views of one or two individuals? Is it because freedom of speech exists only in the limited circumstances sanctioned by the government in many largely Muslim states … and therefore the assumption is that the film must have been approved by the U.S. government?

Modernity is filled with visual and written criticisms of many religions; yet protests do not ordinarily break out because of them. While the protests predominated in Arab countries where the Muslim population is vast, and free speech and freedom of the press may be issues, several Western countries with Muslim populations experienced protests as well, and freedom is not an issue.

The internet — at least via this example — has catapulted the power of any individual to an extreme. And audiences are sufficiently vulnerable. When employed for negative purposes, the crowd reaction is damn scary.

What can we do about it? Similar things happened via the negative depiction of Muhammad in Danish cartoons a few years ago. But this most recent expression of “piety” is far worse.

We want to sustain freedom of expression on the internet. There is an understanding gap here regarding a perception of American disrespect for the Muslim religion, which is officially untrue. We need to correct that. Is it through government and privately sponsored dialogue groups between our two cultures? Is it through email exchanges? Global conferences attended by both parties? Could books be written on mending the fences that are broadly disseminated in Muslim cultures. Perhaps webinars that address the problem and tender possible solutions. Is it too idealistic to hope that there is a responsibility among the leadership of the countries where the protests have taken place to communicate to their publics what is and is not official American policy, particularly among those who accept millions or billions in foreign aid? Further, are there legal options?

We may need a course in risk management on topical subjects on the internet. Whatever, we need big solutions here. This can’t happen again.

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