Karen Hughes gets an earful, but is her boss listening?

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes is on a mission to change Muslim hearts and minds. Since taking up her post in early September, she met with American Muslim leaders in Chicago before embarking on a "listening tour" of the Middle East.

Media reports from that tour indicate that she got an earful of both complaints and advice. Some complaints, mostly about the war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, were predictable. But who could have predicted that Hughes would hear women in Saudi Arabia dismiss the notion that they are in a perpetual state of oppression. One audience member told Hughes, "The general image of the Arab women is that she isn’t happy. Well, we’re all pretty happy."

Perhaps the most revealing moment of the tour came when Hughes met with Turkish women. Once again, anger was directed at America’s war of choice in Iraq. A Kurdish human rights activist captured the concern of Muslim women in the region. She said, "War makes the rights of women completely erased, and poverty comes after war – and women pay the price." Hughes’ answer: "To preserve peace sometimes my country believes war is necessary." One attendee shot back: "War is not necessary for peace. We can never export democracy and freedom from one country to another."

In Egypt she heard from a teacher at the American University in Cairo who said, "U.S. policies unfortunately have been very negative in the region because of Palestine…They have been blinded. It’s a pity."

Another common complaint lodged against the Bush administration was its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Hughes was quick to point out that the prisoners in Camp X-Ray have been visited by the International Red Cross and they have retained their right to worship "using their own Qurans."

This answer missed the point made by many Muslims, and echoed by major international human rights organizations, that holding prisoners incommunicado is itself illegal under international law.

Finally, the issue of growing Islamophobia and anti-Americanism also got significant play during Hughes’ Mideast tour. As in Chicago, so too in Cairo, she heard calls for mounting a united front against extremism in all its forms.

To her credit, Hughes comes across in meetings as a person genuinely interested in hearing opposing views. She passionately defends her boss, President Bush, without being dismissive of opinions that paint the president’s policies in less than sympathetic terms.

But her effectiveness as a goodwill ambassador for the United States will now depend on her ability to walk into the Oval Office and explain to the president that public relations efforts are doomed for fail if they are not tied to policy changes that impact realities on the ground. That was the message she heard from American Muslim leaders, and from activists and ordinary Muslims from Riyadh to Ankara.

Amany Fikri writing in the Egypt’s Al-Wafd said, "Her real task is in Washington…withdrawing American troops from Iraq and rebuilding what was destroyed…Play the role of an honest broker (in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict)…Most importantly to end America’s support for non-democratic governments and regimes in the Arab region."

U.S. policy-makers are nowhere near addressing these core issues, and consequently, we are nowhere near to improving our nation’s image in the Muslim world.

After meeting with the head of Al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious Islamic religious institutions, Hughes made some poignant remarks in concurrence with Sheikh Tantawi. She said, "All divine religions are built on a spirit of love and it is important that all of us work together to fight extremism." The challenge will be transform this noble aspiration into a global reality.

For Karen Hughes to succeed in changing Muslim hearts and minds, she must use her newfound knowledge to focus attention on the hearts and minds of those who formulate American policies that impact ordinary Muslims worldwide. As an Arabic editorial in Al-Khaleej newspaper summarized: "She has to start her mission from Washington, not from Cairo, Riyadh or any other Muslim capital."