"When you look at us, all you see is Osama bin Laden."
I had to admit, Walid al-Saqaf had a point.
Al-Saqaf sat on a small stage at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood with me and journalist Ammara Durani. For the past four months, both had been Alfred Friendly Press Fellows -- al-Saqaf at the Wall Street Journal; Durani at the Los Angeles Times.
Both were also Daniel Pearl Fellows, chosen by the Los Angeles-based Daniel Pearl Foundation from among 99 Muslim journalists around the world to work and study in the United States.
Al-Saqaf, 31, has served as editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, the country's largest and most influential English-language newspaper. A computer scientist by training, he took over the paper when its previous editor and publisher died in a mysterious traffic accident after editorializing for more open government. That editor was al-Saqaf's father.
Durani, 28, is assistant editor of The News, Pakistan's most important English-language paper. She has received awards and fellowships for reporting on Pakistan's water crisis and the role of women in society, and she holds a master's in philosophy from Cambridge University.
I sat with Durani and al-Saqaf to moderate a discussion titled, "Muslim Journalists Look at America" for the Los Angeles Press Club on Aug. 17.
"What information about your country," I asked them both, "isn't getting out through the American media?"
That's when al-Saqaf answered with characteristic bluntness and clarity.
"I'm from the country where Osama bin Laden originated," he said, "and she is from the country where he may be hiding, and that's all most Americans really care about."
As I said, he had a point.
As the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches, America and the Muslim world are still circling each other like cage fighters on Spike TV. This week, former Bush administration communications director Karen Hughes announced she is just putting the finishing touches on a strategic plan to reach out to the Muslim world and explain U.S. policy, but judging by the comments of the visiting journalists, she is the last ambulance on the scene.
To hear the two journalists explain it, the Americans can't see beyond Osama and Saddam, and the Muslim world can't see beyond Palestine and Iraq -- and both sides see red.
"Is any aspect of American foreign policy popular in your country?" I asked them.
"To tell you the truth," Durani said, "no."
Al-Saqaf said that in Yemen there had been a surge of sympathy for America following Sept. 11, and a wave of support for President George W. Bush's calls for reform and democracy in the Arab world. But the Iraq War, coupled with heavily anti-Israel news on Arab radio and TV, turned public opinion against America.
Changing the anti-American sentiment that results will be difficult -- even if the goal is simply to achieve perceptions that, if not pro-American, are at least fair and balanced. With all due respect to Hughes, the best approach may have more to do with supporting indigenous journalists than providing slicker response teams.
After Daniel Pearl's brutal murder at the hands of Islamic terrorists, Judea and Ruth Pearl vowed to further their son's commitment to journalism as a means for cultural understanding. They decided to bring Muslim journalists to America for professional training and experience. As part of the fellowship, the journalists spend some time at an Anglo-Jewish paper. Durani spent two weeks at The Jewish Journal. She visited a synagogue for the first time, and discovered a broad range of opinion in what many of her countrymen view as a rather monolithic community. And, as part of her reporting, she also explored the nuances of Muslim life in Los Angeles.
That said, it's safe to say we learned as much or more from her as she learned from being with us. My suggestion to Hughes: emulate the Pearl Fellows program, many times over.
At the panel discussion, Judea Pearl stood and asked the most challenging question, cutting to the heart of one problematic issue in the Muslim's worldview.
"Pick 12 of your closest friends," he said, "How many of them wish Israel would go away?"
"Twelve of them," al-Saqaf answered.
And these were the educated, Westernized, modern Yemenis.
Durani nodded, but each journalist saw signs of hope.
"They hope, they wish, they dream for Israel to go away," al-Saqaf said. "But they have come to accept they can't change history."
He said journalists can pressure Arab and Muslim rulers to "level with their people" and confront the region's real problems: the lack of development and the dearth of democracy and accountability.
Durani said that Pakistan's experience suggests reason for optimism.
"We have spent our lives thinking that the enemy was Hindu India," she said, referring to the anti-India message once taught in schools and embedded in Pakistani culture. "Then, suddenly, we are cooperating, and we find what we have in common."
The perception of a mortal enemy changed suddenly, once the leaders made the decision to change. The drama, importance and potential of that sudden shift in Muslim perceptions is a lesson for us all -- provided the story gets told.
For more information on the Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellows, visit www.danielpearlfoundation.org.
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