Persians, Indians, Southeast Asians, Americans, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, students, professionals and government employees gathered at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning two weekends ago on the second floor of the Elliott School building. Lured by hot coffee and oversized muffins, an impressive crowd turned out for the second day of the “9/11 + 5” conference, hosted by Americans for Informed Democracy (AID).
As part of their annual fall series of “Hope Not Hate” summits, AID sought to engage young leaders from both the United States and the Muslim world to facilitate dialogue and cooperation among citizens of various countries. The main message that struck me was how little our generation knows about the rest of the world. Furthermore, we should all take steps to better understand and cooperate with Arab nations and cultures.
Speakers in panel discussions and small groups discussed the war on terror five years in, pointing out the alarming rate of growing distrust between the world’s largest superpower, the U.S., and the world’s fastest-growing religion, Islam.
As the conference progressed, panelist after panelist expressed the need for face-to-face interactions between Americans and Arabs to better the relationship between the U.S. and the Arab world. “You’re less likely to hate people you know,” AID President Seth Green pointed out, as the audience tittered uncomfortably. The twin evils of fundamental cultural misunderstandings and ignorance help to spark conflicts between the U.S. and the Middle East on both a global level and in between individuals.
It is far more important, however, for our generation to become engaged with this issue – more important than inviting top Arab and Muslim leaders to take part in summits, encouraging study abroad programs in the Arab world and increasing scholarship in the Middle East. Our parents obviously dropped the ball on this issue and have been scrambling to catch up in the post-9/11 world. It is our responsibility to step into the middle of this war of words (and in some cases bullets, bombs and tanks) to silence the empty rhetoric on both sides and encourage greater reflection.
Today’s college graduates face an increasingly interconnected world, and few realize that whispers among us echo throughout the rest of the world. Few Americans also recognize the megaphone that the U.S. wields abroad and the opportunities we have, as young Americans, to alter the future of the foreign policy. While GW likes to boast of its graduates prepared for the new global society, well-versed in a foreign language and culturally sensitive, what good is this training if we’re not going to use it?
There is no greater challenge to our generation than changing U.S.-Middle East relations. As global citizens, we must ask ourselves what our responsibilities are. Not all GW students plan to run for public office or dream of crafting policy, but all of us will leave campus with our intellectual toolkit packed full. Where and when we will use this to our advantage is an individual choice, dependent on personal and professional factors. I do know, however, that we have the potential to eradicate ignorance and to change the face of U.S.-Middle East relations.
AID chose the theme of “Hope Not Hate” because examining the present conditions of the world can sure be depressing. Though many speakers shared stories of cultural conflict and misunderstanding, all felt that the situation could evolve. Glancing around the room at the participants of the conference provided me with my own glimmer of hope.
Some women wore head coverings, some men wore suits. But each and every person was in that room was there because he or she believed in the possibility of a peaceful, productive relationship between the Middle East and the U.S. I can only hope that the students in the audience last weekend heeded the call to arms and will carry their experiences into the classroom to begin opening the lines of global communication.
-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.