Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Blog

Ten Lessons to Improve Understanding and Heal the Divide Introduction:

(At the completion of Dr. Zogby’s course “Bridging the Divide” at NYU Abu Dhabi, his students, on their own, prepared the following document as lessons learned to improve understanding to heal “the divide”)

We are citizens from ten countries but we have come together for one class; “Bridging the Divide between the Arab World and the West.” Together, we explored the factors that have pulled these two regions apart, and their disastrous effects. Stereotypes have spread and taken root, violence has taken lives on both sides, and war has created deeper wounds than can be quickly healed. Now at the end of our time together, we have been asked to search for a way forward with the lessons we ourselves have learned.

1. The Divide: Understanding and acknowledging divisions both within and between the Arab World and the West The first step towards bridging the divide between the Arab World and the West is approaching a nuanced definition for the ‘divide’. The term ‘divide’ does not refer to fundamental differences between people in value, ideas, and culture. Instead, the real divide consists of the misunderstandings and prejudices that prevent us from appreciating these differences.

The phrase “the divide between the Arab World and the West” misleadingly implies a singular, homogeneous division between the general categories of the “Arab World” and the “West.” In reality, this divide encompasses the various misconceptions and misunderstandings that separate these two broad, heuristic categories, while at the same time refers to internal divides on either “side.” These divides are perpetuated in individual interactions as well as in governmental actions. Before any steps can be taken in bridging these divides, the existence of such rifts between and within the ‘sides’ must be addressed as a critical problem that harms both as long as they remain unaddressed. This also requires a deeper acknowledgement that the issue is far more multifaceted than these binary terms suggest.

2. Commonality: Understanding and acknowledging commonality within and between the Arab World and the West Too often, the Arab world is defined by the ways rendering it different from the West and the West is defined by the ways that it is different from the Arab world. Instead of creating two distinct groups, we should refer to our history of colonization, migration and travel in order to see how these cross-border experiences have carved a shared historical narrative. People should be exposed to the “Other” more frequently so that it does not become a distant, separate group. We can accomplish this by hosting cultural events that allow personal engagement with foreign cultures without traveling. (Examples: Arab arts festival, 1001 inventions, etc).

3. What’s being said: Communicating our values, traditions, and culture in order to form a greater awareness for sensitive issues on both sides In the messages we convey, we should not include any positive or negative stereotypes that may be fed by previous experiences. A clear distinction needs to be made between government policies and people’s attitudes. Emphasis should be put on the daily lives of individuals in both societies, not only on the exceptional events that are broadcasted from the respective regions. Societies should not be shown to be all good or all bad, but rather as containing both positive and negative elements on each side of the divide. 

4. Avenues of communication: Listening to the story of the people and projecting an accurate representation of their narrative We need to integrate positive aspects of the culture in entertainment and bring out individual voices through human interest stories. Encouraging the responsible use of more interactive tools such as social media can allow us to reach a broader audience and provide direct access. People should be familiarized with current events by being shown the connections that exist between different traditions and cultures. In print media, a weekly column could be published and distributed to worldwide English-language newspapers, explaining the parts of American culture AND of Arab culture that often come under the most scrutiny (freedom of speech, women’s rights, etc.).

We should recognize the impact that non-governmental organizations can have on increasing dialogue between both sides while maintaining neutrality. Their actions should be free of national interests while still addressing the needs, but not necessarily the wants, of both sides.

5. Education: Creating a framework to comprehend the world Education should be a continuously developing process both on a personal and a national level, not a means to an end. We believe education can be a tool to create understanding through experiential and content learning. Examples of content learning are a decentralized and more nuanced world history curriculum; a curriculum that teaches general principles on civic responsibility - towards a nation and towards the world; and comprehensive Middle Eastern and Western studies programs available to students in both regions. Examples of experiential learning are exchange programs and cross-school partnerships and conferences that bring together students and adults from different countries to collaborate on a wide range of issues such as but not limited to interfaith communication.

6. Respective Expertise: Acknowledging that in order for international cooperation to be constructive, both sides must be active contributors and receivers of expertise Both sides must take ownership of their areas of expertise regarding their own history, political system, societal traditions and values. These unique perspectives must be clearly communicated and fully appreciated. Both sides must also recognize the areas in which they would like assistance, and these issues should be addressed with mutual respect and participation.

7. Humility: Understanding that we cannot be right if we cannot be wrong We all aspire for a better future, but change cannot be built without a realistic understanding of our past. Currently, attempts to acknowledge our respective shortcomings have been met with strong backlash and accusations of being 'traitors' or 'apologists.' Under this fear of self-criticism and dogmatic assurance of the perennial justice of our cause, political debate has stagnated, policy has suffered and refusal to reconsider key issues has stymied progress in the Arab World and the West. Our policy will be stronger and our relations better if we can be vulnerable and show empathy towards each other by recognizing our own shortcomings.

8. Grounded Ambitions: Striving to ground the ambitions and aspirations of the people in reality In his now famous speech in Cairo, President Barack Obama established a new standard for American awareness of the complexities and realities of US-Arab relations. But this understanding expressed did not reflect the intricacies of the domestic politics and opinions within the United States, and ultimately would become a point of disillusionment. But this was not an isolated event; attempts to expand understanding and achieve progress have historically suffered from a lack of self-awareness, specifically when more empathy and growth was promised than could be realistically delivered. There is a need for greater continuity between government policy and public opinion, and more concrete frameworks for bringing the sentiments of citizens to light.

9. Nuanced Pragmatism: Being aware of what is pragmatic and what is idealistic in order to establish a plan of action for the present as well as the future While Arab and Western leaders want to put their people’s interest foremost, very often their complete disregard for interests of others only aggravates the situation. The world is less and less a zero sum game, and humanity has to suffer in those instances when we force it to be. Instead of aiming for grand idealistic and purely selfish changes that involve compromise of only one side and will create only deadlock and disagreement with others, leaders and policy makers should design realistic policies that can be agreed upon by everyone and actually move the region forward. For instance, Hamas and Israel should stop trying to completely annihilate each other, which is not only impossible but also unsustainable in long term, and focus instead on an achievable win-win compromise that might supplant their initial idealistic ambitions.

10. Progress is Process: As students, we have spent this term wrestling with these issues. Our class is now over, but we have not finished. We cannot finish—progress is not a fixed point to achieve. Neither is it an easy road; it an exhausting march, with far fewer celebrations than hardships. But within this march is the aspect we must aspire to—tirelessness. Our exchange is not a transaction, but rather an ongoing conversation, and it is this conversation that step by step can change our attitudes. Leaps are rare; we are slow and steady. The lessons outlined are not easily learned nor will they be simple in execution. The temptation will always be to relent, to say ‘now this is far enough,’ to sit by the side of the road and rest. But we cannot rest. We must have courage to listen, to be open, to be wrong and to put aside our familiar roles of aggressor or victim to become equal partners with a common goal. We do not hold these truths to be self-evident; it is far too easy to ignore them, far too comfortable to look away. But it is the difficult path that leads forward, and forward we shall walk.


Prepared by:

Umair Ahsan

Ipek Basaran

Alistair D. Blacklock

Olga Cebotarean

Victoria Susan Edmonds

Latisha Khadine Harry

Robert C. Haynes

Emma Lorraine Leathley

Michelle Lerner

Angelina Micha Djaja

Irene Paneda

Aliz Toth

Yannick Trapman-O’Brien