Posted by on September 13, 2014 in News Clips

My mother was fond of saying, “If you want someone to hear you, you must first listen to them.” You must know them, understand the questions they are asking and be sensitive to their concerns. If you do this, she would say, “you will be able to speak with people and not at them.”

What happens when you don’t follow this simple rule of communication was on display during the “In Defense of Christians” (IDC) conference—an event put on to highlight the very dire plight of Christians in the Middle East—that was held this week in Washington.

Addressing an audience of 900 mostly Arab Christians, Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, launched into a passionate defense of Israel, arguing that “Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.” The audience booed. Undeterred, Cruz continued, to more booing, “those who hate Israel hate America” and “those who hate Jews hate Christians.” When the audience would not stop, Cruz cut short his remarks, charging that “some here are so consumed with hate … if you will not stand with Israel and Jews, then I will not stand with you.” He then walked off the stage.

Cruz has a demagogue’s instinct for headlines—a quality that makes him immensely disliked by many of his colleagues—and he got them. He is also considered to be quite bright and calculating (he is, after all, said to be a brilliant lawyer). So I’m of two minds about his little stunt. It’s possible he went to the IDC conference to provoke a “Sister Souljah” moment—one he could then exploit with his supporters on the fundamentalist right as evidence of his political courage. More likely, he had no clue about the reaction his remarks would receive and was, therefore, stunned by the audience reaction—only midstream did he decide to use the audience’s reaction to his political benefit.

Either way, what Cruz did next was telling. Immediately upon leaving the event, he issued a statement to Breitbart (a far-right website) calling the booing “a shameful display of … ignorance and bigotry.” He lamented that while he had wanted to lay out a litany of examples of Christians and Jews persecuted by “Islamic radicals,” his efforts to do so were upended by “bigotry and hatred” and “the corrosive evil of anti-Semitism.”

In fact, in this entire sad and sordid affair, the only ignorance and bigotry on display was that of the senator himself. He cared not a bit for the feelings of Arab Christians. Blinded by his own lack of understanding and concern, Cruz appeared to be more interested in scoring political points with his conservative base than in taking the time to know what Christians in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq really feel and want.

Had Cruz listened, he would have heard about their difficult relationship with Israel—its brutal occupations of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian lands and the disproportionate violence it has used, with impunity, in its many wars against several Arab countries.

Had he talked to the six patriarchs of Eastern churches in attendance (as President Obama did on Thursday), he would have heard them speak of their history of coexistence with Muslims. They, of course, are deeply concerned about the rise of extremism and horrified by the brutally violent excesses of those who are using a distorted Islam to create the terror they use to consolidate political power. But far from wanting to fuel a “clash of civilizations” that pits Jews and Christians against Muslims, the leaders of these Eastern churches seek the defeat of extremism and the creation of a social order that can build societies based on equal rights for all and reconciliation among all faith traditions.

But Cruz wasn’t listening. He came to the event with preconceived notions and a prepackaged message. He was speaking at Middle East Christians, using them as a prop to promote his own agenda. Unfortunately, he is not alone.

For decades now, American politicians have paid scant attention to the realities of the Arab world and the complex history and needs of its people. Their awareness of the region has been framed by Israel and oil. One, they felt was necessary for their electoral ambitions, the other was important for America’s economic well-being. Seeing the region through this narrow lens produced a willful ignorance about broader regional realities. It was not just that politicians did not know about what Arabs were saying or what they wanted, they did not want to know—since they felt that there was no benefit in knowing.

This has created a dangerous state of affairs. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has spent more money, sent more weapons, fought more wars and lost more lives in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, and yet we still have too little understanding of its people, their history and culture, and their needs. Because we have had little to no understanding of Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis, we have engaged in tragic and costly foreign policy blunders that have taken a terrible toll in human life and American prestige.

In my polling, I find that Arabs like our values and culture, our science and technology, our products and our people. What they hate is our policy, because they see its impact on their lives and the insensitivity it demonstrates to their concerns. They want to like us, but feel that we reject them.

It appears that policymakers want to have it both ways. They work overtime to establish their pro-Israel bona fides while feeling free to make outrageous statements about Arabs and Muslims—all for politically expedient ends—and yet they are confounded by the Arab reactions to these taunts and insults.

So it was with Ted Cruz on Wednesday night. He didn’t want to listen.

There is a lesson in this, for those who care to learn. And it’s not only about the importance of communicating. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmering on low boil; with violent extremists gaining ground in Syria and Iraq; with Lebanon on the brink, overwhelmed by refugees and in danger of being engulfed in the sectarian conflict brewing next door; and with ancient Christian churches threatened with extinction—the president has announced that we are now about to fight a war with the Islamic State.

Before we do, it is important that Obama not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor. We need to be certain that we understand the people and the cultural and social dynamics at work in each of these countries before it’s too late. It would be tragic if our efforts to help become yet another in a series of fatal errors that have marked our history of involvement in this region, a part of the world about which we still know so little.

Original Article
comments powered by Disqus