When the State Department Tries to Choose Muslim Thought Leaders to Win “Hearts and Minds”

In the latest comically humiliating failure for U.S. propaganda efforts, its "hearts and minds" program touts Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose views could not be more anathema to the targeted regions.

Few things produce darker and more warped comedy than when the U.S. government launches new propaganda campaigns to “win the hearts and minds of Muslims.” Remember when George W. Bush dispatched his longtime political aide, Texas’ Karen Hughes, to the Middle East as a State Department official to change Muslim perceptions of the U.S. and that promptly (and predictably) resulted, as Slate put it, in a “jaw-dropping display of ignorance and malapropism that made her the laughing stock of the region”?

In fairness to Hughes and the State Department, she was vested with an impossible task. How do you convince the people of that region to like you when you’ve spent decades bombing, invading, and droning them; arming and propping up the tyrants who suppress them; lavishing Israel with the weapons, money, and U.N. cover used to occupy and brutalize Palestinians; and just generally treating their countries like your own private plaything for war and profit?

As a 2004 Rumsfeld-commissioned study about the causes of Terrorism put it: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies,” in particular, “American direct intervention in the Muslim world,” our “one-sided support in favor of Israel,” support for Islamic tyrannies in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and “the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As a result, trying to change Muslim perceptions of the U.S. without changing U.S. policies of imperialism and militarism is the ultimate act of futility.

Destined though they are to fail, the propaganda efforts don’t have to be quite so comically bad: The government could, for instance, put people in charge of these campaigns who actually know something about the part of the world they’re trying to propagandize. Yet these efforts seem only to get worse. One of the most embarrassing tactics is when the U.S. government (and its media allies) select people whom they hold out to the Muslim world as the people they ought to follow; invariably, the U.S.’s selected “leaders” spout views and engage in conduct more anathema to the overwhelming majority of Muslims than the U.S. government itself is.

Last year, the State Department announced with great fanfare a new social media campaign to counter ISIS’ online messaging. They called it “Think Again, Turn Away,” and created Twitter and Facebook accounts in that name. Its self-described purpose on Facebook: “Our mission is to expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda. Don’t be misled by those who break up families and destroy their true heritage.”

It was a massive comedic failure from the start. And that failure continues. Yesterday, Think Again, Turn Away’s Twitter account promoted and hailed someone they think will serve as an inspiring thought leader for Muslims around the world:


Is Ayaan Hirsi Ali likely to be the effective messenger to the Muslim world that the State Department envisions her to be? Last year, she revealed her choice for who should win the Nobel Peace Prize: Benjamin Netanyahu. “He does what is best for the people of Israel, he does his duty,” she said. “I really think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize. In a fair world he would get it.”

Earlier this year, she told a gathering hosted by the Israeli Consul General that she previously tried to convert to Judaism and hoped one day to try again. She has spouted some of the most virulent anti-Muslim bigotry, the worst of which may have been her 2007 interview with Reason, where she said she rejects the notion that “we” are at war only with radical Islam but instead are at war with Islam generally. Behold the State Department’s chosen ambassador to the Muslim world:

Can you hear all the Muslim hearts and minds changing throughout the world yet? Other than ISIS, who does the State Department think is going to be remotely excited about and receptive to this message? To combat ISIS’ message, the State Department is promoting someone who has articulated a bloody, vicious vision of global war against Islam that coincides perfectly with ISIS’ greatest dream.

If the U.S. government were actually serious about trying to change how it is perceived around the world, it would change its behavior that — as its own study found — causes massive anti-American sentiment around the world. In lieu of that, it continually attempts to propagandize people into changing their views, and the only thing remotely surprising about that choice is how remarkably inept the government is at doing it.

Top photo: The U.S. State Department’s top official for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, reads a book with Kashmiri earthquake survivors during her visit to a tent school in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Nov. 14, 2005.

Join The Conversation