Do Americans Fear Islam Because of Poor Marketing?

A panel discussion, “Rebranding Islam,” at the South by Southwest (SWSX) conference in Austin, Texas, last week presented an interesting question: Can savvy marketing and a public relations shoe- shine help the Muslim community gain the trust of Main Street America?

This panel will bring together leaders of the Muslim American community, PR and brand strategists who can foster the sensitive dialogue between religion/politics and public relations/branding. As the controversy of the The Ground Zero Mosque  heightened, the issues of religious freedom and tolerance garnered credible support from both sides of the fence, but there is one thing everyone will agree on: The terrorists own the share of voice of Islam. Perhaps the majority of Muslims in America condemn these terrorists, but the terrorist voice is getting all the attention—creating fear in the US and beyond.

This raises interesting questions: Why do terrorists “own” the voice of Islam? Does religious freedom mandate tolerance of intolerance? And how much “sensitive dialogue” and “public relations/branding” would it take to soothe frayed nerves in an era of Times Square bombers, Underwear Bombers, and Mo-mo Christmas Tree Car Bombers – not to mention bulldozer, bus, train, jumbo-jet, pizza parlor, and Katyushah terror?

The two public relation experts on the panel, Alona Elkayam and Michael Maslansky may be good, but nobody’s that good. This is the kind of PR challenge that would make “rebranding” Nestle’s image after their ill-advised Third-World-infant-malnutrition-for-profit scheme look like a cinch.

And yet that was the question, in effect, posed for the panel: Does this level of super-hero salesman on steroids exist? Someone with such a command of slick advertising and social media window-dressing techniques that he can actually convince life-and-liberty-loving Americans that vigilance and caution are not normal human instincts, but shameful evidence of their own intolerance?

That’s a tall order, and you don’t have to take it from me. As plainly stated on the “Rebranding Islam” web page, even the conference’s organizers don’t think it would work – although a little kibitzing “wouldn’t hurt.”

Perhaps the majority of Muslims in America condemn these terrorists, but the terrorist voice is getting all the attention—creating fear in the US and beyond. Stopping terrorism in America and the views Americans have of their fellow Muslim Americans cannot be resolved by a better brand campaign, but it surely wouldn’t hurt.

Despite such low expectations, Elkayam and Maslansky joined Muslim American advocates, Daisy Khan and Zeenat Rahman; and journalist, Joel Mowbray; to discuss what kind of spit and polish would be required to separate Islam from the terrorists… and, I suspect, to convince John and Jane Q. Public that only knuckle-dragging islamophobes are watchful for the next mass murderer wannabe queuing up for future carnage in the name of Allah.

And while the panelists rightfully agreed that mainstream Muslims could improve their image by speaking out more stridently against terrorism, discussion appeared to be thin when it came to the gaping fissures of insight and self-examination within the Muslim community itself.

There are many areas where Islam could shore up their “branding” problem, which Elkayam and Maslansky didn’t mention. I’m no marketing expert, but I would think that Khan’s obsession with delivering joy to whatever rock Osama Bin Laden is hiding under by imposing an “Islamic Cultural Center” smack on top of the ashes, tears, and rubble of Ground Zero might also contribute to Islam’s “branding” problem.

It’s elementary that if you want to sell something, you don’t offend, insult, and injure your target market — and Islam is accomplishing all three with the Cordoba Project. Knowing that American Muslims are determined to build a mosque at the location where hundreds spent their last terrifying minutes on earth listening to throat-cutting madmen chant “allahu-akbar,” could be viewed as a little insensitive and off-putting.

Americans aren’t stupid. If Islamists in Gaza would pass out candy to celebrate the throat-slashing of a three-month-old infidel, it’s ignorant to assume that an Islamic center at Ground Zero wouldn’t become an instant monument to conquest and triumph and a fanatic magnet for zealots gather and seethe about the great Satan and incubate more terrorists like the ones that brought down the World Trade Center in the first place.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like that’s just the sort of thing that might contribute to Islam’s “branding” problem.

And so the question is, if “rebranding Islam” is successful, would it ultimately cost lives? Because the panel seemed to be stuck on the notion that Islam’s reputation problems are not of their own making, but are simply amorphous perceptions within an intolerant populous that must be taught to divorce Islam from terrorism.

That sounds nice, but didn’t the Fort Hood Massacre prove that tolerance in the face of terrorism can be dangerous? That we ignore islamofascism at our own peril?

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