At US State Dept., Blog Team Joins Muslim Debate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Sep 22 14:09:26 UTC 2007

September 22, 2007

At State Dept., Blog Team Joins Muslim Debate


WASHINGTON Walid Jawad was tired of all the chatter on Middle Eastern
blogs and Internet forums in praise of gory attacks carried out by the
noble resistance in Iraq. So Mr. Jawad, one of two Arabic-speaking members
of what the State Department called its Digital Outreach Team, posted his
own question: Why was it that many in the Arab world quickly condemned
civilian Palestinian deaths but were mute about the endless killing of
women and children by suicide bombers in Iraq?

Among those who responded was a man named Radad, evidently a Sunni Muslim,
who wrote that many of the dead in Iraq were just Shiites and describing
them in derogatory terms. But others who answered Mr. Jawad said that
they, too, wondered why only Palestinian dead were martyrs. The discussion
tacked back and forth for four days, one of many such conversations
prompted by scores of postings the State Department has made on about 70
Web sites since it put its two Arab-American Web monitors to work last

The postings, are an effort to take a more casual, varied approach to
improving Americas image in the Muslim world. Brent E. Blaschke, the
project director, said the idea was to reach swing voters, whom he
described as the silent majority of Muslims who might sympathize with Al
Qaeda yet be open to information about United States government policy and
American values. Some analysts question whether the blog team will survive
beyond the tenure of Karen P. Hughes, the confidante of President Bush who
runs public diplomacy. The department expects to add seven more team
members within the next month four more in Arabic, two in Farsi and one in
Urdu, the official language of Pakistan.

The team concentrates on about a dozen mainstream Web sites such as chat
rooms set up by the BBC and Al Jazeera or charismatic Muslim figures like
Amr Khaled, as well as Arab news sites like They choose them
based on high traffic and a focus on United States policy, and they always
identify themselves as being from the State Department. They avoid radical
sites, although team members said that jihadis scoured everywhere.

The State Department team members themselves said they thought they would
be immediately flamed, or insulted and blocked from posting. But so far
only the webmaster at the Islamic Falluja Forums ( has
revoked their password and told them to get lost, they said. Not that they
dont attract plenty of skeptical, sarcastic responses. One man identifying
himself as an Arab in Germany commented that they were trying to put
lipstick on a pig. During Congressional testimony last week by Gen. David
H. Petraeus, for example, the two-man team went into chat rooms to ask
people their opinion.

God bless America, the giving mother, went one sarcastic response, going
on to say that everything the United States does goes into the balance of
your pockets, I mean the balance of your rewards. Another noted that
Iraqis were better off before the invasion, while a third jokingly asked
the Digital Outreach Team for a green card. Mr. Jawads responses tend
toward the earnest: We do not deny that the situation in Iraq is
difficult, but we are achieving success in decreasing the level of
violence there with the contribution of the Iraqis who care about their
nation and who reject the terrorists and killers who target their victims
based on sect, he wrote at one point. He directed the green card writer to
the Web sites describing how to apply.

Mr. Jawad and his colleague, Muath al-Sufi, are circumspect about
biographical details that would allow readers to pigeonhole them by their
roots, religion or education. Mr. Jawad, would only say that he is in his
30s, was born in Texas and raised around the Arab world. Mr. Sufi also
said he was in his 30s. The team said certain topics repeated regularly,
including arguments over the accusations that American soldiers tortured
Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and President Bushs comment that the fight against
terrorism is a crusade.  Much time is also spent trying to douse the
Internet brush fires that erupt whenever prominent Americans from
talk-show hosts to politicians make anti-Muslim remarks of the bomb Mecca

Each response is carefully shaped in English by the team and translated
into often poetic Arabic. We try to put ourselves in the mindset of
someone receiving the message, said Duncan MacInnes, the director of the
Counterterrorism Communication Center, of which the Digital Outreach Team
is one branch. Freedom for an Arab doesnt necessarily have the same
meaning it has for an American.  Honor does. So we might say terrorism is
dishonorable, which resonates more.

Analysts said they had been surprised by the positive response, with
people seemingly eager to engage, although the overall impact was
impossible to assess. They are not carrying the slogans of liberalization
or democratization across the region, said Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi
political analyst. They are talking about peace and dialogue, and I think
that makes it difficult for those debating them to justify criticizing
them. Mr. Toraifi said the postings had generated some debate in the Arab
world and had been the subject of a column in an Algerian newspaper
lauding the State Department for discussing policy with ordinary people,
something the writer said the Algerian government would never do.

Indeed, several analysts said having State Department employees on the Web
helps to counter one source of radicalization the sense that Washington is
too arrogant to listen to the grievances of ordinary Arabs, so violence is
the sole means to attract attention. Mr. Jawad and Mr. Sufi say that in
their roughly two dozen weekly postings they avoid all religious
discussions, like whether jihad that kills civilians is legitimate. They
even steer clear of arguments, instead posting straightforward snapshots
of United States policy.

Mr. Jawad is often maligned as a U.S. agent, including by Radad, the man
of the just Shiites remark. After Mr. Jawad wrote that all life was
equally worth preserving, part of the mans response was, Dont you think an
agent of Arab nationality deserves to be killed? Mr. Jawad wrote back in
part, It seems to me that many people are quick to offer judgments based
on political views so those who oppose them are always agents and
infidels. Which leads to law of the jungle, which is not just, but

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.


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