Posted on February 28, 1994 in Washington Watch

Discussions with both Arab and American journalists and political analysts make it disturbingly clear that on several levels our two societies do not understand each other.

We do not know each other’s histories or social and political structures. And often times we each display a failure to understand or appreciate central aspects of each other’s cultures. Evidence of these misunderstandings abounds.

For example, Arabs correctly note the bias and negative stereotyping of both Arab culture and Islam in the U.S. media. But it is equally correct to note the many defamatory articles about the U.S. in some Arab publications.

The writers of the articles in question frequently present caricatures of the “other” society based on surface impressions and incomplete information, often colored by an ideological bias. And this is as true of some Arab journalists writing about America as it is of some American journalists writing on Arabs or Islam.

Similarly, political analysts, both Arab and American, all too frequently make incorrect assessments of political decisions made by the “other” side. Because there is a lack of appreciation for the political dynamics at work in each other’s societies, analysts often simplify or mystify these processes, the complexities of which they do not understand.

Some Arab writers, for example, can understand nothing more about U.S. foreign policy than using the mystified cliché of it being under “conspiratorial Zionist control.” This overly simplistic view of U.S. foreign policy decision-making is matched by those American writers who reduce all Arab states’ policies as driven by a blind “anti-Israel animus”, as if there were no real history or real issue concerns to which those policies are a response.

What is needed, at this point, is a deeper exchange and dialogue between our two worlds and a commitment to be open to understanding.

In the beginning, the two central issues that require greater understanding and appreciation are for Arabs to comprehend the history of U.S. democracy and the ways that the resulting political dynamics shape U.S. policy; and for Americans to understand the role that Arab culture and, at times, Islamic solidarity plays in shaping the political attitudes of the Arab world.

Most of the world only knows American democracy as a slogan or sees it as an abstraction. It is not merely voting or running for elective office – it is a process and a culture. And American democracy is best known not as the abstract perfect picture that is presented in brochures, but in its history – the history of the struggle of many American groups to expand the democracy and make it real.

The system is not perfect and is open to abuse; but history has shown that the system is changeable and abuses can be corrected when groups organize, take advantage of their power and act to bring about changes that are in their interest. That is how African Americans, women and other minorities (including Arab Americans) have worked to expand their influence in the U.S. system.

Political decision-making in the U.S. is subject to the pressures of the democracy. One of the reasons that pro-Israel American Jews have been so successful is not because of some “conspiracy” or “control” but, as I explained in an earlier set of articles, due to the fact that they committed their resources and energies to make the democratic process work for their interests. And there is some continuity in U.S. policy because, despite some advances by Arab Americans, the pro-Israel community remains a powerful and preeminent political force in fundraising for candidates, voting as an organized bloc and projecting a unified message that continues to dominate the U.S. political debate on Middle East issues.

The lesson for Arabs and Arab Americans is clear. To change U.S. policy one must first understand the nature of the system and its decision-making process. And then one must be committed to engaging in that process, play by its rules, and organize to change it.

To mystify the process and then denounce its products as immoral is only a cry of helplessness – it will not make change.

To the extent to which U.S. policy affects the Arab world, and there is agreement that the impact is considerable, Arabs need to devote themselves to understanding the inner workings of the U.S. system in all its aspects: the information system, the legislative process, the electoral system and even how various government agencies work and interact with each other and what they offer to those who learn how to take advantage of them.

Learning from other successful efforts to use the democratic process to change policy can yield important lessons as to how Arabs might proceed, even at this date, to make U.S. policy more responsive to their concerns.

While some Arabs have not understood the workings of U.S. democracy, Americans have not understood the role of “Arabness” and Islam in the shaping of Arab culture and decision-making.

It was shocking to see the U.S. one year ago, launch an initiative on Bosnia and then consult with European allies as if the Arab or Islamic communities were not affected by the crisis that was killing tens of thousands of innocent Muslims in that country. Similarly, it remains puzzling to Arabs that U.S. analysts fail to see the pivotal role that the issue of Palestine plays in shaping the attitudes of Arabs and Muslims world-wide.

That, despite their differences in systems or ideologies, there are central threads that bind together the many Arab states and Arab popular culture remains a mystery to many Americans. And that is because there is little understanding in the West of the common history and experience which Islam and Arabness represents to the 200,000,000 Arab people.

The failure to appreciate the legacy of the last century of pain and its impact on the Arab consciousness accounts for many misperceptions of the fears and aspirations of the Arab world today. The fact is that during this period Arabs lost control of their history. They were invaded, subjugated, colonized and cut into pieces. While analysts in the West began to think of the pieces as distinct and separate entities, events in each Arab piece continued to have reverberations in the rest of the region. While each portion of the Arab world ultimately reached some semblance of independence, Palestine remained the broken link, the open sore and constant reminder of Arab powerlessness.

That this remains a deeply felt hurt among many in the Arab world, that much of Arab policy is still predicated on a response to this fact, is not understood in the West. And because of this, policy analysts and policy-makers continue to make mistaken judgments about how Arabs will or will not respond to events or decisions.

By way of example that might shed light on both people’s misperceptions of their respective realities, one can point to the question of the Arab boycott – an issue frequently raised by U.S. policy-makers in their dealings with the Arab world.

The boycott, of course, came into being as an Arab response to the injustice done to the Palestinians nearly half a century ago. It remains a symbol of Arab reaction to that injustice just as the injustice itself remains, and this is something that some Americans still fail to appreciate. (Although Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown in his recent statements on the boycott displayed real political wisdom by translating the issue of the boycott into an American business concern and not an acceptance of the Israeli position, which is a real step forward in the U.S.-Arab dialogue on this question.)

While some Americans continue to misunderstand the difficulty Arabs have in doing direct trade with Israel until justice is restored to the Palestinians, Arabs fail to understand why U.S. Administrations and Congress continue to raise the issue, if only in a pro forma way. The answer is simply the political pressures inherent in the U.S. process which have raised this issue to a high level of visibility and have made it a litmus test to which U.S. politicians must at least pay heed, or else risk paying with their political lives.

There is so much more that could be written on this topic, but is sufficient to write that what is required, as we move forward in this new post-Cold War period, is better understanding and appreciation of the major characteristics of each other’s societies, systems and culture – not for any abstract reason, but because sound policy will ultimately come only from sound understanding of each other.

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