The Problem With John Kerry’s Trip to Hollywood

Wrong movie, wrong focus group, wrong century.


Secretary of State John Kerry went to Hollywood this week in search of ideas to counter the Islamic State’s appeal. And to be fair, he was onto something: the power of narratives and emotional appeal of stories have a role to play in beating back a hateful ideology. And American moviemakers know how to tell great stories with global appeal, as foreign box office sales can attest.

The medium is right, but the message — or rather, the “American brand” — is not. And Kerry is in the wrong century. Not to mention that a dozen middle aged Americans — most of them white men — are definitely the wrong focus group.

During the Cold War, the American brand — whether communicated in films, jazz, or rock and roll music — stood for freedom of expression, of movement, and from government oppression. The same is not true today, when the American brand is just as likely to serve as a recruiting tool for the Islamic State. For many in the Middle East, Europe, and, apparently in the United States (San Bernardino), the American brand — even if unfairly — evokes the Iraq War, Guantanamo, support for oppressive governments like those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and apostasy.

Spreading America’s message through creative products worked in the Cold War, but in today’s environment of global 24/7 media, social media, and citizen journalism, getting Sony to step up production of the next Spider Man isn’t the answer. A more effective approach is to leverage local, authentic voices — including those who are critical of U.S. policy.

Rather than strategizing with American studio executives, Kerry would do better to talk with and support creative voices from Muslim majority communities who represent, in their own terms, values of freedom and social justice, and who have huge followings among the youth the Islamic State targets.

Ironically, two of the most important voices are now living in California — Bassem Youssef, renowned as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, and Ganzeer, the most famous cartoonist of the Egyptian Revolution. Both have been exiled from Egypt by the government. Rather than selling President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi more weapons, how about supporting the eloquent voices for freedom he has expelled from Egypt? These two Arab personalities, with enormous online followings (before his show was shut down, Youssef had millions of views on YouTube) have more much greater potential to galvanize Muslim youth against the Islamic State than anyone from Hollywood. Even if they didn’t want to work with the U.S. government, it would be worthwhile to think creatively about how to leverage online their voices and those of other creative exiles from repressive Muslim majority countries.

The voluminous non-professional narrative content from Arab or Muslim voices ranges from the viral satirical sensation “No Woman, No Drive” with over 13 million hits, to films such this poignant Yemeni short, made by children for children, warning against the deceptions of terrorist recruiters. These films, debates, stories, images, and songs would be so much more powerful if gathered on one website, an idea Dr. Nadia Oweidat, a specialist in moderate Islamic thought and contemporary Arab media, has advocated for years. “This is a wired generation; Arabic speakers make up the highest number per capita of Facebook subscribers. My vision is to create a website that aggregates and amplifies the many young Muslim voices who are taking on their peers who sympathize with extremism, and debating counter-values as well as counter-narratives with them online,” says Oweidat. So, Secretary Kerry, why not talk to media and Internet companies about hosting such an online platform?

The key point is to adapt the strategy to local conditions, tastes, and voices, rather than hoping that Hollywood can conquer all. In Mali, for instance — where terrorist attacks by Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, and al-Mourabitoun recently have spiked — music is the lifeblood of the country. Even during the state of emergency, three sold out Valentine’s Day concerts two by major stars Salif Keita and Sidiki Diabaté, and the culminating Caravan for Peace concert featuring the new generation of Malian musicians and rappers — drew thousands of Malians.

Rappers from all over the country belted out lyrics each in his/her own dialect to a new song about peace, unity, and Mali’s traditions of tolerance and diversity at the Caravan for Peace concert organized by Manny Ansar — founder of the famous Festival au Desert, which once drew the likes of Bono and Robert Plant to Timbuktu and co-director of Timbuktu Renaissance, a Malian-American initiative to counter violence extremism through culture. A video, commissioned by Timbuktu Renaissance, and narrated by Morgan Freeman who is descended from slaves from Timbuktu and who traces the roots of the Mississippi blues to Mali, captured over 18 million views in its Arabic, French, and English versions, and sparked online discussion about the role of music and tolerance in the history of Islam. Washington should focus on these authentic voices and storylines, drawing on the history and identity of the region, not Hollywood exports.

No one strategy will counter the appeal of extremist narratives. And, yes, there is a role for Hollywood. In his Feb. 3 speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, President Barack Obama noted the need for Muslim television characters in non-security roles. Simply creating authentic, varied Muslim roles in movies and television — as facilitated by organizations such as MOSTResource, which developed out of the Brookings Institution’s Arts and Culture Leaders meetings at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum — would convey an essential message of respect to Muslims, and would help counter Islamophobia. Equally importantly, American writers, producers, and directors can help train young artists from Muslim majority communities. Sundance has held mentoring workshops in the Middle East for years, but more is needed, including funds to produce the scripts that emerge.

Secretary Kerry was right to recognize the importance of challenging the Islamic State’s storylines, and convening Hollywood executives whose films seduce millions around the world might seem a logical strategy to beef up the State Department’s failed attempts to best jihadists online. But this approach misses the plot.

Voices and media that Muslim youth trust and follow stand the best chance of winning them over. The State Department and others in the NGO and private sectors can help expand the reach of these authentic voices, many of them now exiled to the West by governments the United States supports. Maybe we should listen to them, too.


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