Two Parallel Discussions

James Zogby’s Column

During the past week, I found myself engaged in two parallel and, in many ways, complementary sets of discussions.  I am, on the one hand, a member of a special task force on public diplomacy created by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.  The purpose of the task force is to examine how the U.S. can better communicate its concern and its cause against terrorism to the peoples of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

At the same time, I was invited last week to the Arab world to participate in two separate discussions on, if you will, Arab public diplomacy.  The concern in both of those discussions was how to improve America’s understanding of Arabs and Muslims.

Both the American and Arab efforts were, of course, prompted by the terrorist attacks of September 11.  It is important that they are occurring, because while there are “clash of civilization” advocates on both sides, these discussions convened independently by extremely prominent groups from the U.S. and Arab sides testify to the fact that mutual understanding and cooperation in pursuit of common goals remains a shared objective.

It is especially significant to note that these efforts, though occurring simultaneously, are unrelated to each other.

The U.S. public diplomacy effort is an offshoot of another Council task force that was convened to discuss the many aspects of the war on terrorism.  The grouping that has come together to focus on public diplomacy includes former government officials, corporate executives, media and public relations specialists, and Middle East and Arab American scholars.

This group’s discussions are only just beginning, but it is already clear that there is a shared concern among many of the participants that U.S. information outreach efforts to the Arab and Muslim worlds, to date, have been lacking.  There is concern that we don’t know the languages or real concerns of the peoples involved, and that our messages and messengers have, therefore, not resonated in the region.

What has emerged from these early discussions and the recommendations that have, so far, been offered, is the clear recognition that there is a problem and a genuine desire to remedy the problem.

Much the same could be said about the two sessions in which I participated in the Arab world.  There too, the participants were leaders in government, business, media and academia.  And in these Arab discussions, there was also a shared concern that their information outreach efforts, to date, have been sorely lacking.  As a result, it was observed, Americans do not understand Arabs or Muslims or have images of both defined by negative stereotypes.

The Arab sessions, like those in the U.S., were grounded in the firm belief that understanding could and, in fact, must be achieved in order to realize common goals.

What was intriguing, as well, was that the recommendations emerging from the Arab discussions also focused on messages and messengers-all with an eye toward promoting better understanding.

It is, of course, one of the disturbing outcomes of September 11 that both worlds have simultaneously awakened to the sad reality that “we do not understand each other”.  While Americans ask the questions “why do they hate us?” and “why can’t they understand what September 11 meant to us?”, Arabs are asking “why don’t they understand what has been done to us” and “why can’t they respect our humanity and our rights?”.

All of this is especially troubling because in many ways our two worlds have been so intimately involved with each other.  It bears repeating to note that: over one million Arabs immigrated to America and have become a part of the U.S.; hundreds of thousands of Arabs have studied in the U.S.; and, Arabs are heavily invested in American businesses in many sectors.   Similarly, America is heavily invested in the Middle East, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have worked in, served in, or defended the region.

And yet, even with all of this comes the stark realization that we do not understand each other.

Part of the problem, to be sure, is a function of policy.  It is important for Arabs and Muslims to know that many of those engaged in the U.S.-based discussions understand that U.S. policies toward Palestine and human rights issues have contributed to erecting a wall of division between our two worlds.

But there is a more general problem.  We, Arabs and Americans, have tended to see and judge each other unidimensionally and not as the complex human beings that we are.  We do not understand each other’s worlds, each other’s cultures or religions or histories.  So just as many Arabs have not understood the magnitude of shock of September 11 and the fear, the horror and the anger it generated, many Americans have not understood the fear, the  horror and the anger Arabs feel over the continuing human tragedy unfolding in Palestine.

We do not understand each other’s concerns or pain.  We also don’t understand each other’s processes.  While some Arabs still think, for example, that buying a U.S. media outlet would be a solution to educating Americans, Americans make a “quick fix” by sending a stream of U.S. officials to appear on a single Arab network or make plans to open a U.S. equivalent of the BBC.

The problem is deeper and the solution, therefore, requires deeper engagement.  The good news for those who value the U.S.-Arab partnership and understand how important it will be to strengthen this relationship in order to better root out terror and to address the causes of violence and instability is that participants in both the U.S. and Arab discussions understand the need to go deeper.

As a senior Arab participant noted in one of the sessions I attended, “It may just be that we (the Arabs and Muslims) will not be able to make ourselves understood by the Americans, until we first understand America and its people, and that Americans will not be able to make us understand them, until they first understand us.”

Inspired by this observation, I have returned to the U.S. committed to bring these separate but parallel U.S. and Arab discussions together.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.