We've been saying not to go there to ourselves for a long while. "There" is consideration of how principles of PR might apply to U.S. relations with Islam and the firepower we're deploying supposedly to strengthen them, yet this is a serious subject, perhaps the most important relational challenge of our times. We raise it now because a measure of its difficulty is provided in a blog post on the Huffington Post by Theo Padnos, who spent time in a prison in Yemen.
Padnos asks us to imagine, and we can readily do so, how the followers (via his blog) of an Islamic cleric like Anwar al Awlaki, "an American-born journeyman Islamic preacher, now in Yemen," could be expected to react in any way but with shock and hostility to reports that the U.S. helped target his home in an air strike.
We're not judging (we're in no position to) the provocation for any such strike. But we're thinking about its relational effectiveness. Maybe it could have some salutary effect in the eyes of the planners for a time. How about perceptions in the Web-centered world, which is what we're pondering?
Padnos hits the mark when he suggests we read Awlaki's blog posts down through the comments section. There we'll find admiring, anguished responses from followers around the world whose fervor apparently is only intensified by air strikes against Islamic heroes. In relational terms, how could that be otherwise? Someone you respect is being blasted -- how else are you supposed to feel about that?
The comments, notes Padnos, "mention Nottingham, Virginia, Australia, Brimingham, and other small and not-so-small cities in the West. They are more or less everywhere, in other words, but many do not seem especially attached to home."
Have we really factored into our strategic thinking how the Internet, blogging, and social media in general may be abetting Islamic radicalism and making our exposure to possible terrorism greater rather than alleviating it? What, indeed, would alleviate the threat?
It's a rhetorical question, yes, but it's an intensely practical one, too. How do we change relationships with the Islamic world for the better when so many members of that community (apparently) are listening and corresponding individually from around the world -- beyond the official "theaters of action" (which seem to be spreading)?
This is a new, intensely difficult form of relational challenge. We wish we had a better sense of how it's going or even if it's truly being addressed. Sometimes, it doesn't seem that it is.