A full audience packed the Elliott School of International Affairs building Tuesday night to discuss the changing face of U.S.-Islamic relations in the wake of Sept. 11 and the war with Iraq.
The event, titled “What Steps Can the United States and the Islamic world take to avoid a clash of civilizations?” featured several prominent leaders who discussed how the U.S. can repair its strained relationship with the Middle East. Famed public opinion pollster and Arab-American activist James Zogby dominated the event.
“When you’re in a hole, and want to get out, stop digging,” Zogby said. Zogby’s initial point at the symposium was that since Sept. 11, the war on terror has damaged America’s relationship with the Middle East instead of trying to improve it.
Zogby also stressed the importance of educating Americans about Arabs and Muslims to avoid prejudices that were shaped in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
“Ignorance after 9/11, coupled with fear and anger, is a lethal brew,” Zogby said.
On several occasions Zogby referenced the work of his renowned polling organization, Zogby International. Polling results in the U.S. and the Arab world, he explained, demonstrated shared fundamental values between the regions. Both regions care about civil liberties, healthcare and community issues, refuting the idea that the current conflict is strictly cultural.
He also attempted to disprove the perception of some Americans that Islam is inherently violent by pointing out the violent pasts of all major religions and the similarities between the monotheistic religions.
GW professor Nathan Brown commented on post-9/11 American views of the Middle East. He said that to call the current conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East a “class of civilizations” is an exaggeration.
“(The conflict) is much more political, less a clash of civilizations values,” Brown said.
The Middle East, he believes, takes issue not with the fundamental values of the U.S. but with its failure to globally uphold those values. In order to improve the relationship between the two regions, both need to learn to live with their political differences and recognize the positive attempts by both sides to “seize initiatives” towards progress.
Bill Geiger, a former reporter for The Washington Post and Rolling Stone, agreed with Brown about the misuse of the term “clash of civilizations,” a theory made popular by political scientist Samuel Huntington’s book of the same phrase. He addressed the question of why some people hate America, arguing that after Sept. 11, some Americans made the grave error of stereotyping Middle Easterners and viewing them with hostility. Criticizing the policies of the Bush administration, Geiger announced to loud applause that the president is “brilliant at the politics of manipulation but incompetent at governing.”
The meeting ended with a question-and-answer period in which the speakers entertained several questions about Arab values, religious revivals in the Middle East and the impact of Sept. 11 on the American psyche.
Members of the audience generally reacted positively towards the discussion, but some said the panel only addressed one aspect of the issue.
“(The event) was thought-provoking, but the panel was also rather one-sided,” first-year graduate student Simon Hirschfeld said.
The GW chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy organized the meeting as part of their “Hope not Hate” series. A similar discussion was held a year ago at the Elliott School. AID is an organization devoted to fostering global understanding through various types of dialogue. GW senior Brian Adkins, co-founder of GW AID, said he was pleased with the event and hoped it would leave an impact on the University community.
He said, “We’re thrilled to use these events to mobilize students.”