Report Outlines Methods for Using Arts and Culture to Bridge Ties With Muslims in Asia

Arts and culture have a unique potential to strengthen America’s ties with Muslim communities in Central, South and Southeast Asia, according to a recently released Asia Society report. Titled Making a Difference Through the Arts: Strengthening America’s Links with Asian Muslim Communities, the report joins a growing number of recent studies that make a strong case for the role of arts and culture in expanding links between the United States and nations with Muslim-majority populations. Making a Difference contains a series of case studies that highlight six core principles and strategies for engagement, and aims to provide useful models for a broad spectrum of interested parties, from policy-makers charged with considering the role of culture in public diplomacy, to academic institutions seeking to enrich international studies programs. 

According to Rachel Cooper, Asia Society’s Director of Cultural Programs and the project director, “Effective cultural exchange arises from keen awareness of cultural distinctions no less than commonalities, and from an intimate familiarity with the cultural practices, beliefs and worldviews of specific communities.” The six principles and strategies may be summarized as follows: 

1. Knowledge and accurate information are crucial to strengthening cross-cultural understanding. The arts offer a powerful domain in which individuals and communities can acquire knowledge about the achievements, values, and aspirations of other cultures. Strategy: Create strong cultural contextualization for cross-cultural arts projects, such as documentary films, translations of texts, lecture-demonstrations, and debates that contribute to nuanced cultural translation. 

2. Cross-cultural collaborations should be formulated in a way that creates parity and equity between and among collaborators. Strategy: Build programs from the ground up, rather than the top down, with frequent consultation, sharing of information, and consensus building about tactics. 

3. Successful cultural initiatives and advocacy work need sustained investment over a long duration. Strategy: Invest in building relationships with a minimum five- to seven-year time frame, focusing on support for creative work as well as organizational capacity building.  

4. Powerful forces for social change are linked to the invention of new technologies, such as the printing press, the Internet, cell phones, and digital media. Strategy: Exploit new communications technologies to promote connectivity. 

5. Rather than viewing cultural production as a mechanism for "monetizing" creativity, culture should be viewed as a unique form of social currency that serves as a positive force in building community. Strategy: Explore new forms of noncommercial cultural dissemination and sharing (such as the Creative Commons model) that challenge conventional models of cultural ownership. 

6. Direct people-to-people connectivity retains an abiding power in the age of the Internet and digital mediation. Events that bring together artists and audiences from different cultures create a frisson—difficult to replicate in mediated forms—that can open new, potentially transformative modes of perception. Strategy: Invest in programs built on promoting direct, personal experience of high-quality artistic performance, ideally accompanied by cultural interpretation that renders performance accessible to nonspecialists. 

Making a Difference Through the Arts is coauthored by Rachel Cooper, Asia Society, and ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin, with contributions from writers on Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Malaysia. Making a Difference Through the Arts is part of Asia Society's Creative Voices of Islam in Asia project and is made possible, in part, by generous funding from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and by the New York State Council on the Arts. For more about the project and to download a copy of the report, visit: 

About Asia Society 
Asia Society is the leading global and pan-Asian organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia. The Society seeks to increase knowledge and enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of arts and culture, policy and business, and education. 

Contact: Elaine Merguerian 212.327.9271 or