The art of persuasion

Whoever emerges as the next US president must work hard to set right relations with the Muslim world. To be sure, the right way to develop a better relationship is not to turn the other cheek over Muslim extremism or terrorism, or to develop a 'politically correct' posture that treats all Muslims as peace-loving, rational and sensible. They are not - just as no such generalised attitudes can be applied to all Christians. Both worlds have their share of nuts.

One would not presume to characterise Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in such extremist terms. But the unapologetically outspoken Muslim voice in Southeast Asia is at it again. He told one Malaysian newspaper that he is convinced the 'ignorant' American people will re-elect President George W. Bush.

According to Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years and initially supported Mr Bush's war on terror: 'The American people are, by and large, very ignorant and know nothing about the rest of the world ... Yet they are the people who will decide who will be the most powerful man in the world.'

Not many Americans will give Dr Mahathir's presidential preferences much notice, but we all must understand that many Asians feel that their stake in the outcome of this election is almost that of US citizens. It does not mean that everyone on the continent supports Senator John Kerry or is anti-Bush; it is simply a recognition that the geopolitical nature of the world ensures that the US president becomes (in some sense) the world's president, as well.

Many Asians worry that the US war on terror is misconceived. It may be more fundamentally a long-term struggle for ideas. Consider the eye-opening essay in a recent issue of the London-based Times Literary Supplement. 'In the western view, the success of Mohammed's prophetic vision may be ascribed to social, ideological or even military factors,' writes Navid Kermani, a German-born, ethnic Iranian writer. 'Yet Muslim sources paint a different picture. They emphasise the literary quality of the Koran as a decisive factor in the spread of Islam...'

With fascinating detail, Kermani describes the 'normative power' of the language of the Koran and the intense grip of its 'aesthetic fascination' on the Muslim mind.

Tellingly, he describes the literary, siren-like quality of the Arabic in Osama bin Laden's video broadcasts as 'exquisite', 'immaculate' and 'modest'. He explains: 'His rhetoric works precisely because of the absence of rhetorical ornament and a conscious modesty of expression ... His prophetic aura was reinforced by his austere attire and location in a cave in Afghanistan, a clear reference to the cave in which the Prophet received his first revelation.'

America's comprehension of the Muslim and Arabic phenomenon is so dim that it is barely illuminated by the light of understanding and scholarship. Its main counterplay is bombs, which breed new terrorists.

We in the US need to reflect more, and bomb less. In the end, intellectual muscle and penetrating cross-cultural comprehension could well prove our most potent weapons of mass persuasion.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is founder of the Asia-Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre