American hijab

Robert Satloff of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has circulated a sharp essay on the “hearts and minds” question: how do we persuade a billion Muslims that we are not enemies of God? The folks in the State Department who are running this campaign call it “public diplomacy,” and it’s turning into a big-ticket item, involving radio, television, and various gimmicks. The idea is to persuade Muslims that the United States isn’t waging a crusader war against Islam under the guise of the “war on terror”—something which, to judge from yet another poll, a vast majority of Muslims believe to be so.

One high-profile tool in the hearts-and-minds department is a State Department website devoted to Muslim Life in America. It includes a photo gallery meant to illustrate the diversity of Muslim life in this country. But as Satloff discovered, what visitors really get is lots of pictures of women whose heads are covered by hijabs and chadors. Satloff:

In its goodhearted but profoundly counterproductive effort to project American tolerance abroad, this website projects the image that virtually all American Muslim women (and the large majority of American Muslim girls) are veiled, hardly a message of support to the Afghan women now free to choose whether to wear the burqa; to Iranian women fighting to throw off the chador; or to Turkish women, whose contribution to building a democracy in an overwhelmingly Muslim state should be celebrated.

Photo after photo, the image is the same: women with covered heads. “It is difficult to overstate the sheer variety of the Muslim experience in the United States,” announces the website. In fact, what the website does is dramatically understate that variety. A couple of photographs showing veiled women would have demonstrated the point: women in America are free to go about veiled, if they so choose. The repetitive portrayal of women in hijab and chador is almost orientalist in its relentless stereotyping.

As it happens, a woman runs the State Department’s “public diplomacy” campaign: Charlotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive (Uncle Ben’s Rice, etc.). It seems to me that if the United States really wants to demonstrate its respect for Islam, she should don a hijab the next time she flies off to Cairo or Doha. (Here she is without one.) During the Second World War, the British sent a woman, Freya Stark, to run their propaganda campaign in the Arab world, at a time when pro-Axis sentiment ran high. There are lots of photos showing Dame Freya in Arab garb; I’m sure the Arabs loved it. Here are some options for Ms. Beers, from the Middle East collection of fashion designer Miguel Adrover.

As for the website, the State Department should let its hair down.