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US ads miss mark, Muslims say

America's image in the Muslim world slides, despite US campaign

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The good news is in the view from the lawn of Indonesia's National Islamic University: Clumps of students are decked out in Levis. Most of them say America is a tolerant society where Muslims practice freely - echoing the message at the center of a $600 million US public-relations campaign since Sept. 11.

But the good news ends there. Ahmad Imron, a lanky economics student in a red Planet Hollywood T-shirt, says that while America's message is getting through loud and clear, it's the wrong one.

"We know that there's religious freedom in America, and we like that,'' says Mr. Imron. "What we're angry about is the arrogant behavior of the US in the rest of the world."

On the street, the reaction is the same, from street peddlers to US-trained academics: The US media campaign isn't relevant to Muslims' concerns. What saps their support for America is not impressions of how Muslims are treated inside the US, but their opinions about America's international relations - particularly with Israel and Iraq. Moreover, analysts say, if the US proceeds with plans to invade Iraq, its standing among Muslims will only fall.

"That is a certainty,'" says Azyumardi Azra, the rector of the university and a leading Muslim moderate. "War will stir more anti-Americanism."

A poll released last month by the Pew Research Center found steep declines in America's public image in every Muslim nation surveyed.

The US has traditionally enjoyed a better image in Indonesia than almost anywhere else in the Islamic world. But even here, the new PR effort isn't working. Pew poll data found that the number of Indonesians with a favorable impression of the US fell to 61 percent last year, from 75 percent in 1995.

Egypt is the most striking example of how difficult it is to win the war of public opinion. The country is typically the second-largest recipient of US government aid, yet only 6 percent of Egyptians said that they have a "favorable" view of the US, according to the Pew poll.


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