NOTE: This was one of the first blogs I ever wrote. A recycled school paper for… not sure. Maybe my international public relations class. Written the year before. Funny to read it now. Posting it terrified me. I didn’t write anything more for several years. I re-posted this on September 3, 2009. Almost five years to the day.

Hi Magazine logoJust a little over a year ago, in July 2003, the State Department launched Hi magazine. Hi is part of the administration’s ongoing effort to combat anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, particularly among Arab youth.[1] This effort also includes Radio Sawa (Arabic for ‘together’) and an upcoming Arabic-language satellite TV station.[2]

Hi focuses social and cultural issues, targeting Arabs aged 18 to 35. It is produced by The Magazine Group, a custom-publishing firm based in Washington DC. Christopher Ross, special coordinator for public diplomacy at the State Department, said that Hi is an attempt to “build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world…to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small.”[3] The magazine fastidiously avoids political issues. Ross explained that “There are plenty of political magazines. This is, in a very subtle way, a vehicle for American values. There have been people in Congress who have said, ‘Why can’t we explain our American values?’ Well, here is one way to do that.”[4]

From the Arabic online version. The bottom three buttons say: Forum, Feedback, Ask America.

From the Arabic online version. The bottom three buttons say: Forum, Feedback, Ask America.

Like the web site that accompanies it (available in Arabic and Englishand still available thanks to Archive.org’s Wayback Machine), Hi seems well-designed and produced, with a strong layout and high-quality photography. Browsing the English site, the articles look like typical American fare — think People magazine. This month, there are four features: a summary of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s rise to fame, a piece that muses about the future of professional wrestling, a profile of Florida, and an article about the rise of inter-racial marriage in the US. At the bottom of some of the articles are questions from readers, some Arab and some American. After the article on wrestling Emily, 32, from Baltimore asks “Do professional wrestlers in other countries take American personas to signify their bad guys, like Americans did in the late 80s with the Iron Sheik?” As far as I can tell, there’s no answer to this question anywhere on the site. Is this, then, just a veneer of cross-cultural sharing and inquiry?

Despite its glossy, seductive appeal, Hi will fail. The magazine will be undermined by the actions of the organization that created it. Put differently, Hi is undermined by US foreign policy. Way back in the early 1900s, public relations professionals began to see the limits of propaganda. To get the best results, they learned, organizations (and this includes governments) have to be responsible and responsive. “Prove it with action,” said Arthur Page, one of the grand-daddies of PR, “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by doing and 10 percent by talking.”[5] With this idea, some practitioners began to move away from the publicity model toward a “two-way symmetric” model of public relations. They envisioned their role as catalysts for mutual understanding, which would result in mutual adjustment. This approach implies that the organization is willing to learn and to change in response to the publics on which its survival depends.

The rise of The Rock: “Do professional wrestlers in other countries take American personas to signify their bad guys, like Americans did in the late 80s with the Iron Sheik?”

The rise of The Rock: “Do professional wrestlers in other countries take American personas to signify their bad guys, like Americans did in the late 80s with the Iron Sheik?”

Hi’s glaring lack of political content emphasizes America’s unwillingness to examine its policies and engage in a meaningful dialogue. And by focusing on social and cultural topics, the administration misses a critical point: Arab youths already understand and like American culture. That’s why Radio Sawa has been such a bit hit while at the same time hatred toward the US grows exponentially. Arab youth also appreciate our ideals of democracy and freedom. What they resent are American policies toward Israel, Iraq, and the Middle-East in general. “This rejection of any political explanation for Arab anger,” wrote one blogger, “blinds and cripples American efforts to deal effectively with the Arab world. By refusing to countenance the idea that Arab anger is driven by politics, not culture, the American approach guarantees its own failure.”[6]

So what should the State Department do? They should identify and support moderate, pro-democracy Islamic voices. And they should probably do this at arm’s length, because the US government has zero credibility among Arab youth. (Oh, and Mr. Ross, it would probably help if you don’t admit outright that your strategy is to reach future Arab leaders “while their opinions are not fully formed” — this is sure to piss them off.) For example, in September 2002 an article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Islamic Studies’ Young Turks: New generation of scholars deplores problems of Muslim world and seeks internal solutions.” The article discussed a new breed of Islamic scholars who “oppose not only the authoritarian regimes that rule most Muslim countries, but also the Islamist movements that have risen to prominence in recent decades. These scholars, who regard such movements as reactionary rather than liberating, call for a radical transformation in the very structure of Islamic civilization — an opening up of Islamic societies to dissent, toleration, political pluralism, women’s rights, and civil liberties.”[7]

Cover of a print version.

Cover of a print version.

Two of these scholars — Nader Hashemi, a doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto, who is writing his dissertation on secularism, democracy, and Islam, and Emran Qureshi, an independent scholar — are looking for a funding to start a new journal, Salam. “They want the journal, for which they are seeking a financial backer, to be a forum for critical introspection and dialogue for Muslims throughout the diaspora.” [8]

In its first year of operation, the State Department had earmarked approximately four million dollars for Hi magazine. If I were them, I’d put my money on Salam.

NOTE: From what I can tell using Archive.org, Hi Magazine in English ran until May 2006, when it was “temporarily” suspended. The Arabic version seems to have continued for another two months or so.

[1] http://www.prweek.com/news/news_story.cfm?ID=182697&site=3, visited on November 2, 2003.
[2] http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2003-09-14-prawar-gns_x.htm, visited on November 2, 2003.
[3] http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/656/eg8.htm, visited on November 2, 2003. Topics up for discussion in Hi magazine include the most popular character on Friends, the coldest U.S. state, and the source of late-night talk-show comedy material.
[4] http://www.islam-online.net/English/News/2003-08/09/article02.shtml, visited on November 2, 2003.
[5] Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, Glen M. Broom. Effective Public Relations (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1999), 127.
[6] http://abuaardvark.blogspot.com/2003_08_31_
abuaardvark_archive.html
, visited on November 2, 2003.
[7] http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i03/03a01401.htm, visited on November 2, 2003.
[8] http://chronicle.com/free/v49/i03/03a01401.htm, visited on November 2, 2003.