The 21st century has witnessed unprecedented instability over the past few years; the rise of DA’ISH in Iraq and Syria has captured the anxieties of the entire world; the increasing popularity of Donald Trump in the United States continues to grip the world’s attention, and the success of the Brexit movement in the UK has shaken the very core of British society.
These are all very different developments, and come with different challenges, but at the heart of these seismic events lies a deterioration of healthy public discourse and an erosion of trust and communication globally. Challenges and threats which can only be addressed with soft power approaches are being dealt with recklessly, and often even with coercion.
The Muslim world has also been suffering from these challenges, which is starkly apparent for all to see because of its significant shortcomings in soft power and effective communication.
Whilst national self-interest and foreign policy goals remain the key drivers of how countries act in the global stage – there has been a steady decline in bilateral diplomatic engagement and a rise in networks of non-state actors, such as NGOs, unions, or civil society. In such a varied environment, clinging to old notions of hard power, whether it is economic or military, is increasingly futile and potentially damaging.
A recent study of the top 30 soft powers in the world did not feature a single Muslim country. And yet, it is the Muslim world that stands in the most dire need of public engagement and communication with broad audiences.
The void has been filled by the worst actors; ISIS, hate preachers, and fundamentalists – all have used public engagement and communications tools to facilitate their alarming rise. In fact, it is no overstatement at all to say that challenges such as DA’ISH and hate preachers are essentially soft power challenges which cannot be fully defeated with hard power.
This Muslim world must respond to these challenges appropriately because the consequences couldn’t be more severe. The rise of DA’ISH alone highlights the importance of engaging with global audiences outside of state apparatuses – as power becomes less centralised in the hands of few actors, and social and civic organisation becomes more diffuse through digital media – it is strongly within the national interest of Muslim countries to build the capacity of healthy communications and global civic engagement.
This does not simply mean investing money in a public media campaign, or going on a public relations drive against radicalisation, it is much broader than that. Yes, capacity building in those areas is important, but significant investment must also be made in education, in raising and disseminating cultural capital, embracing innovation, enhancing digital capabilities, and investing in social and human development.
Having dedicated much of my professional career to building the repertoire of a healthy public (and global) Muslim discourse – whether it was cultural, social, economic or religious – I have seen at first hand the advantages that this can bring, and the extraordinary ability it has in building trust and relationships, and just how much the Muslim world is losing out for not placing strategic priority in this area.
It is the sum of these things that forms the basis of soft power, and acts as a vital defence mechanism in the face of religious extremism or any other social threat. It is on such diverse soft resources that the reputation, perception and global public opinion of a country is underpinned, and through which a country can exert considerable international influence. The world’s biggest superpowers are also the world’s leading soft powers, and that is no coincidence.
It is unfortunate that today, it is the Muslim world which is perceived with the highest levels of mistrust and suspicion – both from outside and from within. When this becomes the case, it is very difficult to reverse, but we must start somewhere, or the void will continue to be filled by the worst ambassadors.
Muddassar Ahmed is the Managing Partner of Unitas Communications Ltd, a UK based Reputation Management Company specializing in delivering media campaigns, public affairs and research for clients such as the United Nations (UN), the Organisation of Islamic co-operation (OIC), the Arab League and the US State Department.