Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The United States and the Islamic World: Toward a True dialogue
OGAWA Tadashi / Managing Director, Japanese Studies and Intellectual Exchange Department, The Japan Foundation

April 6, 2009
The new public diplomacy of the United States has been launched under the Obama Administration. In her town meeting with students during her visit to Japan, Secretary of State Clinton, who is at the helm of U.S. foreign policy, stressed that the United States was willing to listen to people around the world. This is a marked contrast to the approach of the previous administration, which was bent on one-sided projection of American values and unilateral actions. Instead, the United States would seek to exercise smart power based on dialogue and international collaboration. This embracing of two-way dialogue is welcome as an effective way to improve the image of the United States that has suffered since the war in Iraq. The question is how to translate this into concrete action.

In the first place, the United States needs to admit honestly that popular-level understanding of Islam, which is essential for two-way dialogue, is lacking in the United States. Under the US Information and Educational Exchange Act (the Smith-Mundt Act) of 1948 and its subsequent amendments, the United States Information Agency was prohibited from using its funds to influence public opinion in the United States. Thus barred from direct engagement in international cultural exchange designed to foster public understanding of foreign countries, the international cultural exchange activities of the United States has tilted toward one-way introduction abroad of American culture. The proliferation of the stereo-typed image linking Islam and terrorism has deeply hurt the pride of the Middle East Islamic world and hampered constructive dialogue. No effective step has been taken thus far to ameliorate the situation.

Anti-Japanese feelings were strong in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. To promote heart-to-heart exchange on an equal footing, it was felt important for Japan, in the first place, to know the heart and soul of Southeast Asia. The Japanese Government established the ASEAN Cultural Center (subsequently to become the Asia Center) at the Japan Foundation in 1989 and intensified the activities to facilitate the Japanese people's understanding of Southeast Asia through the introduction of Southeast Asian arts, culture and intellectual assets. As Southeast Asian intellectuals and artists gained more and more opportunities to present their literature, movies, music, etc. in Japan, voices of alarm over Japanese cultural invasion became less and less strident. Roundabout as it may seem, improving the American perception of the Middle East and Islam may in fact provide a shorter way for improving the Middle Eastern sentiments toward the United States.

As you try to engage in dialogue, you should have a clear idea as to who your dialogue partner is. In her town meeting with Japanese students, Secretary Clinton said that the struggle against terrorism should not be characterized as a conflict with the Islamic world, but that the misuse of Islam has led to extremists. She went on to say that we should work with the Muslim world on behalf of positive change and enlist the help of Muslims around the world against extremists. This seems to imply a dichotomy of the Islamic world into "moderate Islam" and "extremist Islam", calling for dialogue with the moderates and confrontation with the extremists. Such a dichotomy is a bit too simplistic.

The tendency to lump together all those who oppose the United States as "Islamic extremists" or "Islamic fundamentalists" has made U.S. foreign policy too rigid. Close examination of the ideologies, members, modes of operation and the historical and social contexts of what the United States calls extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, suggests that there are not only similarities but also differences in their respective approaches to Islam. For example, perusal of the personal journals of Hamas and Hezbollah suicide bombers reveals that they had been driven to the extreme action of sacrificing their lives, not so much by their belief in Islam as by their nationalistic compulsion to save their families and brethren from the foreign enemies who invaded their land and threatened their lives. If such is the case, we may perhaps think of them not as fanatic terrorists but as fervent nationalists, which may lead us to a new approach for negotiation. We should use diplomatic and all other available channels to arrive at a clearer idea of who these "extremists" are.

The writer is Managing Director, Japanese Studies and Intellectual Exchange Department, The Japan Foundation.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小川 忠 / 国際交流基金日本研究・知的交流部長

2009年 4月 6日





一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The United States and the Islamic World: Toward a True dialogue