This January I returned to the UAE to teach a short term course at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. It was a remarkable experience. My 13 students hailed from 10 countries and were a highly self-aware and wonderfully articulate group.
Our goal in the course was to examine the roots of the East-West divide and to explore ways of bridging the chasm. We studied the knowledge gap that has separated the two worlds and the myths and negative stereotypes that have come to substitute for real knowledge. We reviewed extensive polling data that detailed the lack of information and depth of mistrust between East and West, and then focused on both the policy blunders that flowed from the misunderstanding and the role that bad policies have played in deepening the divide.
What was especially encouraging was the ability displayed by many of my students to apply lessons they were learning to their own unique situations. Whether from Turkey, Moldova, Hungary, Trinidad-Tobago, Canada, or Pakistan, participants in the course were able to share observations and shed light on the role that stereotypes and policies have played in aggravating tensions worldwide.
At the end of the course, the students met, on their own, in two separate sessions and prepared “Lessons on Bridging the East-West Divide”. This final product was so thoughtful that I felt it deserved to be shared for consideration and comment.
They began their “Lessons” by noting the deep gap that separates the Arab World and the West. “Stereotypes”, they noted, “have spread and taken root, violence has taken lives on both sides, and war has created deeper wounds than can be quickly healed.”
An essential initial step towards bridging the divide, they observed, is for leaders and citizens alike to both acknowledge that it exists and to understand that it “does not refer to fundamental differences between people in values, ideas, and culture. Instead, it consists of the misunderstandings and prejudices that prevent us from appreciating our differences”. “Too often”, they note, “the Arab World and the West have been defined by their differences.” However, on closer scrutiny we find that as a result of trade, colonisation, migration, globalisation, or travel, we discover a shared historical narrative of interdependency. This understanding can and must be broadened through cultural programmes and exchanges.
It was also important, they observed, that a “clear distinction be made between government policies and people’s attitudes. Emphasis should be put on the daily lives of individuals in both societies, and not only on the exceptional events that are broadcast from the respective regions”.
Education is vital to creating this deeper awareness – education, not as a means to an end, but as a continuously developing process both on a personal and a national level. As examples of what should be done, they proposed an expansion of Middle Eastern and Western studies programmes available to students in both regions and “more exchange programmes, cross-school partnerships, and conferences that bring together students and adults from different countries to collaborate on a wide range of issues”.
Another path, they noted, to promoting deeper understanding was the responsible use of social media which could foster instant global interaction, providing individuals direct access to a broader audience. Such communication enables us to listen to people’s stories and their own presentation of their personal narratives – familiarising participants with each side’s perceptions of events and the “connections that exist between these perceptions and tradition and culture”.
For any progress to be made in healing the divide, however, there must first be humility and the “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… 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”. What was unacceptable, my students insisted, were efforts to “brand individuals within each society who acknowledge shortcomings of being ‘traitors’ or ‘apologists’. Our policy will be stronger and our relations better if we can be vulnerable and show empathy towards each other by recognising our own shortcomings”.
Finally, my students posited that it was important to approach this entire enterprise with “grounded ambitions”. They recalled that 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 did not reflect the intricacies of the domestic politics and opinions within the United States, and ultimately would become a point of disillusionment”. In order to avoid this pitfall, it is important that leaders separate what is “pragmatic from what is idealistic” and not propose more than “they can realistically deliver”.
In his book “The Way We’ll Be”, my brother John describes young people from 18 to 29 as the “First Globals”, noting that they are “the most outward looking and accepting generation in history”. Some days in class, I would just sit back and listen to my students as they discussed our course material. John’s observation would come to mind. I would marvel at their optimism, their vision, and their instinctive sense of collaboration. And I would feel confident that they might very well be the generation to heal the divides that they inherited from the generations that had preceded them.
The writer is President of the Arab-American Institute. This writing first appeared in Pakistan Today on January 31, 2013