BOSTON, Massachusetts: Emerson College sponsored an event last Tuesday to promote America at a Crossroads , the series of documentaries running this week on PBS analyzing the challenges the United States now encounters in the post-9/11 world.
The audience – a paltry 50 or so Emerson College students, faculty and administration – viewed excerpts of two of the documentaries. The first profiled former Pentagon insider and Iraq war supporter Richard Perle. The second profiled the Muslim Brotherhood.
After the screening, Newsweek reporter Mark Hosenball, London-based Al Quds editor Abdel Bari Atwan and Perle participated in a panel discussion; Carole Simpson, a former anchor for ABC news and now visiting professor at Emerson, moderated the debate.
The back-and-forth focused on the same, stale subjects that have been distracting geopolitical discourse since Sept. 11, 2001: Why do they hate us ? Are Islam and democracy compatible? Why did the United States invade Iraq? How do we get out? And what to do about Iran?
At first glance, these questions appear to be legitimate and worthy of thorough contemplation. In actuality, they lock us into a false paradigm through which we ignore more critical questions that could yield more creative solutions to humankind s most pressing problems.
The true narrative of the post Sept. 11, 2001 world is not really about Iraq or Iran, regime change, Presidents George Bush or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The people, places and policies are all happenstance – products of wider and deeper issues. Why the United States invaded Iraq – and if it was right to do so – is, on its own, irrelevant.
The unraveling of the Middle East, though hastened by the hubristic invasion, began long before bombs fell on Baghdad four years ago; before 19 men turned planes into missiles on Sept. 11; and before President Bush took his first oath of office nine months earlier.
Al Qaeda s attack on American soil was, of course, a watershed moment; it was the ripe, bitter fruit of a plant that had been growing for decades – powerful enough to jolt people all over the world into a new frame of mind.
The United States had two options with which to respond: business as usual – the kind of brute nationalism, inflamed by self-righteous vengeance, that has trapped civilization in a circle of violence for thousands of years – or a new kind of geopolitics that would fundamentally change the way nations relate to one another.
Disgracefully, the Bush administration pursued the former, continuing a legacy of self-destruction that has plagued social evolution for thousands of years.
American actions in the Middle East perpetuate the false perception of a single, intercultural conflict – Islam versus the West – when really there are two, intercultural conflicts – that within non-Muslim communities and that within Muslim communities. Both are a struggle for identity.
The real questions we must ask ourselves are, will we allow extremism – religious, political or otherwise – to dominate the agenda? How can we empower moderates to be both tough and fair? How do we negotiate conflict for mutual benefit?
It makes no difference if they do or don t like us ; it matters more if the other side is satisfied with themselves, their own prospects and their own society.
We must work for a day when people of all backgrounds respect one another, express a willingness to solve common problems but are otherwise unaffected by each other. The people in the Arab-Muslim world should be too busy with their own affairs to be consumed with either anger or affection for the United States.
Sadly, a long history of repression – from colonialism to autocratic rule – has stunted what would otherwise be vibrant, Arab self-expression. These countries lack the social, economic and political institutions that allow for free and creative thinking in the public arena – without which there can never be real democracy.
It is no wonder that some people thus feel compelled to turn their untapped energy to terrorism; others frustrations lead them to apathy, resigning themselves to the status quo.
Though the horror in Iraq makes it difficult, the United States can and should play a constructive role in helping the Arab world realize its potential – first, by honoring its own democratic ideals, and second, by talking a lot less.
The latter point I mean both literally – stop arrogantly lecturing other countries – and figuratively – stop the aggressive policies that, ultimately, undermine US and global security.
Instead, we need to ask questions that seek to understand others perspectives, and then listen for the answers. Presently, we are asking questions, but ones that only produce the responses we want to hear.
Do not mistake not talking for not engaging. Active listening requires as much, or more, focus than does dictating. By asking the right questions, we can reach a common understanding that, with great effort and patience, can lead to common solutions to a world rife with anger, frustration and humiliation – far from the post-Cold War myth of tranquility that Sept. 11 shattered.
Bill Glucroftis a student of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.