A Cultural Approach to Peace in the Mideast

April 9, 2017

Martin Scott Catino

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If peace has not come to the Mideast, it is not because of a lack of effort, and a lack of ideas. There are many approaches to use, influence, and cultivate “culture” in the Mideast to affect positive change and mitigate conflict. We could easily call these efforts that have spanned decades a monumental failure, but that blanket statement would reflect a strategic reality but not the local and individual progress, which has occurred across this vast region.  Lives in the Mideast have been touched, changed, and affected, and here are just some of the broad cultural approaches. In general, they fall into two main categories: targeting troubled areas of culture; and cultivating cultural aspects for long-term benefits regionally.

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1. The youth of the Mideast. Cultural programs ranging from job training and creation, to “football [soccer] diplomacy” (building communication between Palestinians and Israelis), to education and other focused activities have been used in earnest. Some of these have had marked success and remain a major aspect of cultural change. State Dept. funding to expose Mideast youths to messages, social media, and cultural and educational exchanges continue to target this critical demographic group.

2. Women of the Mideast. Women in the Middle East are among the most potent and active voices and energy for progress: human rights, the rule of law, and cultures of peace and security.  Women in the Middle East often embrace the individual rights championed by the West, but not for individual benefit. This seems odd, but many women in the Mideast see women’s rights as  a means to help their family, extended family and community.  US led and Western programs targeting these women have proven beneficial, and likely to bear fruit well into the future.

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Cathedral of St. George, Beirut

3. Religious engagement. Here is among the most difficult areas to penetrate. Religious engagement and related activities seeking to channel religious activity, both nationally and locally into social services and charitable work have met with stiff resistance. Insurgent and other Violent Extremists Organizations (VEO) have made the control of local mosques and charities among their priority aims. Finding ways to engage national and religious leaders has brought some progress. But engaging local religious leaders is far more problematic and would require efforts, resources, and skills that are not easily available and would be generational in time needed to affect change.

4. Social Media. Despite the millions of dollars used to use, dominate, and exploit social media, this avenue has met with mixed results.  Voice of America (VOA) has had some success, and continues to be a major aspect of America’s reach into a global world. During the Cold War VOA was among the most potent ideological weapons of the West, but this has changed. The diffusion of technology, co-option of it by VEOs, and increasing skills and use by malign states like Iran, Hezbollah (sub state), and others make this area less effective today.

5. Hollywood and other Western entertainment. It was not surprising to find former President George Bush repeatedly telling foreign audiences that he does not like Hollywood movies because they give a false image of Americans. This is not just a reflection of his personal view. The fact of the matter is that an inadvertent influence and image is messaged through Hollywood, which depicts American culture as violent, selfish, immoral and individualistic rather than family oriented.

No matter how focused, funded, supported, and monitored our Information Operations and messaging to Mideast audiences may be, there will be a deluge of influence washing over Mideast audiences often through Hollywood’s influence.  No matter how fictional these images may be, many societies in the Mideast will believe them, in whole or part. No surprise we find Rocky posters and pictures in insurgent hideouts during the 1990s.

6. The strategic tourist. You have most likely heard the term “The Strategic Corporal.” This term refers to the fact that in the digitalized and globalized 21st century and Battle Space, the decisions of corporals will have strategic effects. Those who witnessed and lived through the Quran Burning incident in Afghanistan a few years ago understand this issue well.

But it is not just a military issue. As global connectivity decreases the time to travel and communicate, the media focuses and disseminates the negative, we will find another effect: The Strategic Tourist. When Americans and other Westerners get arrested for having sex on the beach (not the drink) in the UAE, or for promoting Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing, or for building a school in Afghanistan that promotes female education, the outcomes may be violent or at least create effects that reach far beyond the locality.  These effects become more than stories but examples supporting national and regional cultural narratives influencing negative sentiments about the United States.

But there is a positive influence of personal engagements with foreign cultures. Some of the more anti-American people I ever met seemed to soften in time when they see Americans up close and realize that the images of Hollywood do not match the realities.

Indeed, some people may never respond to the most sincere cultural efforts to bring peace. But there is no substitute for using a warm hand to reach a cold heart.


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