Now is the time for an American museum to stage an exhibit on the accomplishments, importance and majesty of the countries and cultures of Islam. (I dont mean a permanent exhibit. The LA County Museum has one of those. I mean a temporary exhibit, the kind that gets lots of attention in the press.)
Huh? What a tremendously bad idea! Just about everyone would get on their high horse. The museum who dared such an exhibit would be pummeled with bad publicity, vilified by Mr. OReally, and lose its funding for the next 100 years. It would be accused of giving comfort to the enemy in time of war.
But there are two good reasons for such an exhibit. The first is that it would be just plain interesting. The Islamic tradition and influence are extraordinary. (It is hard to imagine the Western Renaissance without the participation of the Islamic world from and through which classical texts were recovered.) How could such an exhibit fail to be interesting?
But we are not the “designated audience for such an exhibit. The real audience is the countries and cultures of Islam. We want to make this exhibit something like an olive brand, a gesture of recognition, and a claim to solidarity. The designated audience is the moderates of the Islamic world.
The contest between the West and terror will turn, to some extent, on a second contest, the relationship between extremists and moderates in the Middle East. And the moderates are losing. Anti-American sentiment is deeply entrenched. There is a prevailing view that Americans and the West are hostile not just to the prevailing regimes but to the very idea of Islam. In this environment, the moderates have a difficult time standing their ground. In this “climate of opinion, advantage tends to go to the extremists.
One order of business is to reach out to the moderates. As Thomas Friedman says, “We can train all the police we want in Iraq or around the Arab world, but unless we can strengthen moderates there those ready to act on the hopes of the intimidated majorities a decent future will be impossible. How can we enlist moderates if they suspect we do not respect them?
Museum exhibits have a funny way of reaching out. We are inclined to say, “oh, right, a museum. Like that matters. But there is something official, substantial, unmistakable about an exhibit. This is why nations use them with some frequency to “send messages to friends and enemies abroad. Statements from a presidential press conference, white papers from think tanks, magazine articles, all of these have their place and their effect. But nothing says something quite like an exhibit. Nothing says “respect” quite like this.
Friedman, Thomas. 2003. Wanted: Fanatical Moderates. New York Times. November 16, 2003.
Pachios, Harold C. (Chairman, Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy,) 2002. The New Diplomacy: Remarks to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, April 24, 2002 here
Schneider, Cynthia P. (U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands 1998 to 2001). 2000. Art, Culture, and Diplomacy: Three Links on the Chain of Greater Understanding. Educating in Paradise Symposium, Florence, Italy Palazzo Vecchio Salone dei Cinquecento, October 5th, 2000. here
Permanent exhibit at the LA County Museum on Islamic art here
Quotes of interest:
Pachios (on the importance of Public Diplomacy, as above)
“Americans have become painfully aware of the lack of understandingindeed, misunderstandingbetween our world and the Arab world; between our world and much of the Islamic world.
Senator William Fulbright (in Schneider, as above):
“The vital mortar to seal the bricks of world order is education across international borders, not with the expectation that the knowledge would make us love each other, but in the hope that it would encourage empathy between nations, and foster the emergence of leaders whose sense of other nations and cultures would enable them to share specific policies based on tolerance and rational restraint.”