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Why Arabs lose the communication war

The communication war

by Dima Itani

How do we decide who wins a war? Do we wait for the white flag to be raised to declare a winner? Do we count the number of casualties? Do we count the number of survivors? Truth be told, in modern wars, the real winner is the side that wins the “communication war.”

Regardless of the toll a war takes on its victims, what remains in the minds of people once the fighting stops are the headlines. Who can forget the headlines about the massacres of men, women, children and elderly in Nazi concentration camps during World War II? The Jewish people have engaged over the years in massive and structured communication efforts, using powerful messages and impactful channels to portray themselves as the victims of atrocious acts and to remind the world of the horrible ordeal they experienced.
In large part thanks to this communication strategy, Israel today is a forceful and successful “brand” whose image is that of a nation pursuing stability and safety for its discriminated and persecuted people and is thus immunized against the negative publicity stemming from its military attacks. Just like the Jews’ situation during World War II, today Palestinians are facing massacres of their men, women, children and elderly. Unlike Israel and the West, however, who have always treated communication as an imperative and a top priority, the Arab world has yet to recognize the primordial importance of communication, especially in an era of globalization and the eradication of all boundaries.
To see how our region has fared in communicating its message throughout the Gaza conflict, we need to look no further than the TV screens, radios and newspaper front pages throughout the region: the messages that we see, hear and read all use the language, values and sensational rhetoric that appeal solely to the Arab audience. This “preaching to the converted” does little to reach out and change perceptions on the other side of the world. In the case of Arabs, there has been little or no effort made to understand Western audiences and identify what triggers their emotions and stirs their passions, to communicate with them and make a difference in how they see things.
This must change in order to get the message across when targeting communication to other cultures. The Arab world’s communication should use the audience’s language and idioms effectively, touch upon their values and use a discourse that resonates with them. In other words, rather than showing the same tragic images over and over again, and continuously referring to the innocent blood spilt, it would be far more powerful to draw a simple parallel between the children of Gaza and the children of the West, highlighting that while children in the US and Europe were preparing cookies and milk for Santa and waiting for their gifts, children in Gaza were trembling in fear and waiting only to see if they will live to see the next day.
Communicating effectively across cultures requires identifying a painful event in the audience’s history — one that they can relate to on a deeper level — and comparing it to the situation and difficulties faced by their counterparts in the present. Highlighting the likeness to a tragedy that the audience knows and understands goes a long way in creating a sense of responsibility for the current situation and a need to put an end to it for the sake of future generations. What is sad is that in the case of Israel’s communication, they have capitalized on past tragedies in such an influential way that it has given them a retroactive license to slay and shed the blood of innocent people and still be viewed as the victims.
However, even the most creative communication strategy that builds upon all these powerful messages cannot have an impact without the right channels to send its messages through. Although it can be said that the Arab world’s communication is leveraging new media channels along the lines of Facebook, YouTube and blogs, as citizens from around the region continue to upload photos, comments and video of their perspective on the Gaza conflict, even these channels are Western inventions that are merely being copied in the Arab world rather than being pioneered in the region. If the Arab World wants to get in on the communication game, it must work to create and innovate new channels that can grab audiences’ attention rather than trying to go through overused channels only to be drowned out by the endless numbers of other YouTube clips, Facebook groups and blog entries. Until then, the Arab world will continue to be in the backseat when it comes to communication, aggravating this region’s fears that it will never be seen from a just or human perspective.
Even if our part of the world succeeds in consolidating its messages, tailoring these to Western audiences and sending them out through the most impactful and innovative channels, we will still face another major obstacle: layers upon layers of negative prejudice accumulated over years of poor communication. But these prejudices only highlight the imperative need for effective communication strategies and immediate action in order to start tearing these misconceptions down.
Many may argue that regardless of the message, Arabs will never have the leverage or resources to carry out communication efforts that can match the impact of those carried out by the enemy. A strong narrative and story, however, spoken in the audience’s language and using themes that appeal to their deepest emotions can have just as much power as extensive, well-orchestrated, and costly campaigns.
Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that deeply ingrained perceptions seem to persist no matter how civilized or open-minded cultures get, as the side long-envisioned as the victim will always be a victim and the side seen for years as the murderer will always be the murderer. The only way to break this vicious cycle is through compelling communication that opens the door for another perspective.

Dima Itani & Ramsay G. Najjar, S2C

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Dima Itani

Project Manager & Funded Training Programs Coordinator
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Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C
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