Unforced Error
by Jonathan Schanzer

TNR Online | 11.26.03

Paramaribo, Suriname -- At the heart of this sleepy
South American capital of Suriname stand four golden minarets of the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha'at Islam
mosque. Next to the mosque stands a stately wooden synagogue representing one of South America's oldest Jewish communities, which came to this former Dutch
colony via Holland in the 1600s. This oft-photographed landscape reflects the multiculturalism and tolerance
that Suriname is known for. One U.S. embassy official
calls Suriname "not a melting pot but a salad bowl" of Hindustanis, Creoles, Javanese, Amerindians, Chinese,
and Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, every civilian government
in recent history has been made up of a balanced
coalition of political parties that represent these
ethnicities. And while Islam is the majority faith in this
nation of 450,000, there are significant minorities of Christians, Jews, Hindus, and animists. In addition, Suriname boasts a high literacy rate, a Dutch-
influenced Western culture, and a strong desire to link
itseconomy more closely to the United States, which is
one of the country's top trading partners. Suriname, in other words, would appear to be an ideal target for Washington's efforts to win Muslim hearts and minds.
Yet U.S. public diplomacy is failing as badly here as it is almost everywhere else in the Muslim world.

Instead, anti-Americanism has arrived in Suriname. In
the spring, when the United States attempted to help
an American woman regain custody of her daughter,
who'd been illegally taken to Suriname by her father,
local newspapers alleged that the embassy was
involved in a kidnapping plot. Some Surinamese officials have also begun to harshly criticize Washington.
Suriname's former ambassador to the United Nations
told me that "the U.S. is intent on pursuing a
dangerous unilateral approach" to global affairs. A Surinamese defense official insists that Washington
"is lashing out in anger at the Muslim world after 9/11." Over breakfast, several prominent Muslims agreed with
one Islamic society leader when he said that the U.S.
war on terror "is a war against the Muslim world."

More daunting was my visit to the tiny Al-Iman mosque
on Paramaribo's outskirts, where militant Islam could
be gaining a foothold. Some 20 Javanese Muslim congregants were seemingly honored to sit shoeless
and cross-legged on the floor of their mosque with an American emissary. But they were equally proud that
their Arabic and Islam lessons were taught by a young Saudi-trained cleric from Indonesia--something that
could foretell a rise in militant Wahhabism. One U.S. intelligence official recently expressed concerns in
The Washington Times about Suriname's
"historical nexus to Indonesia, the home of Jemaah Islamiah, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda and
responsible for the Bali bombing." Suriname's Defense Minister, Ronald Assen admitted on November 6 that
Ali Imron, the Indonesian sentenced to life in prison
for his role in the October 2002 Bali bombing that
killed 202 people, spent a year living in the
Surinamese city of Mungo, where he taught at a
Muslim school.

If Washington loses the battle for hearts and minds
here, it would have only itself to blame. Increasing
U.S. subsidies for American rice growers have angered Surinamese farmers, who used to control a large
share of the regional Caribbean rice market. And
though the tiny U.S. embassy in Paramaribo is working
hard to cast U.S. policies in the most positive light, Washington has expended very limited resources in
development assistance. When Suriname achieved its independence in 1975, it also received a $3.5 billion
payout from the Netherlands, which Paramaribo is still collecting today. By contrast, the United States has
offered Suriname a mere $5 million in military aid per
year, as well as "an additional few hundred thousand
for the fight against drugs and thugs," according to an embassy spokesperson. USAID has 17 offices
throughout South America and the Caribbean, but none
in Suriname. As one U.S. official admits, "it's not a lot of assistance. In fact, the whole Caribbean gets very
little." And though the embassy in Suriname likes to
sponsor public diplomacy missions, my four-day trip to Surinam in October was only one of two such missions
this year.

Even the more generous aspects of American aid have become a source of tension. Over the last decade, the United States has held eight Medical Readiness Training
Exercises (MEDRETE) in Suriname, which provide free
healthcare to natives in Surinam's rugged and
undeveloped interior. This is a vital service in the
country's many poverty stricken areas, where
healthcare is available but deficient in a number of
crucial medical specialties. Still, any goodwill generated
|by these exercises was likely offset by recent U.S. pressure on Suriname to exempt American forces
from the International Criminal Court. Local leaders
were angered when Pentagon officials reportedly
asked Paramaribo to sign an agreement exempting Americans if the country is to continue receiving the
free healthcare under MEDRETE.

Making things worse is that American officials are doing
a poor job getting their message across on television
in Suriname. Derrice Dean, host of a one-hour, once-a-
week Voice of America Television show called
"Caribbean Perspectives," believes that "there is not a great effort in getting VOA into the Caribbean," and that the effort there is "not getting a lot of funding." Indeed, she believes that the Caribbean is just "not volatile
enough for America to be concerned about. You just
don't feel the need to penetrate." Embassy officials
note that programming in Hindi and Urdu is picked up
by one local television affiliate, but that program only targets some 30 percent of the population. VOA
English programming for television is rarely aired.
Accordingly, few of the Surinamese officials or academics
I spoke with were familiar with the extensive U.S. plans
to rebuild Iraq, or anything about the State
Department's efforts to foster democracy in the Arab
world. Instead, most Surinamers assumed the United States was simply allowing conditions in the Muslim
world to deteriorate.

Thankfully, radical Islam has not planted deep roots in Suriname. Every Surinamer I spoke with said they
rejected the idea of terrorism against the United States. Most say that they like Americans, just not
Washington's foreign policy. Ironically, one Muslim community leader I spoke with sheepishly admitted
that more Muslims might have joined a demonstration against the Iraq war in Paramaribo's Independence
Square, but were "afraid that the U.S. would revoke
their visas." With so much going for it in Suriname, it
would be even more ironic if Washington lost the battle
for opinion here.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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