Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.

by Steven Everts
In the past few years, something has gone wrong in the broader relationship between the so-called West and the countries of the Arab and Muslim world. Distrust, recriminations and resentment have mounted. Minor misunderstandings or disagreements have taken on highly symbolic importance and fed the cycle of suspicion. When France passes a law to protect the secular nature of its state-run education system by banning religious symbols from the classroom, Muslims all over the world see an intolerant West, bent on denying Muslims the right to practice their faith. Conversely, when some Arab leaders react equivocally to Palestinian suicide bombing, many in the West see a failure to take a stand against all forms of terrorism, while most Arabs point to the suffering of the Palestinians and their valiant struggle to end the Israeli occupation. When terrorist groups in Iraq kidnap and murder European hostages and put the pictures on the internet, the public outcry is, understandably
, visceral and severe. But commentators pronouncing on the background of these killings will somehow suggest that the words Islam, terrorism and fundamentalism are all inextricably linked. Meanwhile, for Arabs and Muslims, the most important images of the Iraq war were those documenting the degrading treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, confirming their long-held suspicions about Western motives and behaviour.

How did we get here? The September and March 11th attacks in the US and Spain; the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath; and the never-ending violence in Israel-Palestine are all contributing factors. But in a sense, relations between the West and the Muslim world have been on the slide for years. Lazy thinking and ignorance on both sides have created one-dimensional images of 'the other'. Too few have spoken out about the problems of stereotyping; the dangers of uncritical thinking and self-righteousness, and the urgent need to search for common ground.

In 1921, when Britain controlled Palestine and Iraq, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a famous poem called The Second Coming. It is a good description of the contemporary Middle East and worth re-reading for that reason alone. To paraphrase Yeats slightly: when the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, the centre cannot hold. In the past few years, the metaphorical centre has collapsed, drowned out by voices of intolerance and conceit.

So what is to be done? Part of the answer is an attempt on both sides to take political risks and change long-standing policies. A genuine effort to bring about the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we all pledge to seek but for which time is fast running out, would be a great help. So too would be a different US approach to Iraq and Iran, and a more generous European stance on visas and agricultural exports. On the side of the Muslim world, more honesty is needed to acknowledge the damage of decades-long stagnation and political authoritarianism, plus a genuine attempt to implement the reforms necessary to reverse these trends. The desperate need to advance the status of women and to ensure a genuine free press cry out for special attention and early action.

But such political measures, while necessary and useful, won't suffice. Arguably the biggest problem is that we know so little about each other. Most people get their information from the media. And when Western media do stories or films about the Muslim world, they tend to use the familiar templates of 'the war on terror'. The same is true for most Arab media: they too prefer to stick to the mental maps of Western hostility, exploitation and moral decadence. Despite the internet and the 'death of distance', few people actually travel from the West to the wider Middle East and vice versa. Even from Cairo, a political, commercial and social hub in the Arab world, only a handful of flights depart every day to European destinations. To compare: literally hundreds of flights depart for destinations in the West from Heathrow alone, which is just one out of five London airports.

More dialogue per se may not guarantee better relations, but it can help and would at least reduce the barriers of ignorance. Thus we need a dramatic expansion of scholarship programmes and workplace exchange schemes so that more people know about life on the other side. Europe has been transformed through political and market integration, driven by supranational institutions. But the most successful EU programme has been the Erasmus scheme, which gives tens of thousands of students the chance to do part of their university degree in another EU country. Similar schemes also operate for professors and other categories of workers. Together with low-cost airlines, they have probably done more for European unity than the deadweight of the common agricultural policy. We need a similar scheme to link educational establishments in the West to those of the Arab and Muslim world. And, why not, we must also explore the possibilities of introducing low cost air travel on routes to and
from the Middle East. There is no reason, other than politically inspired protectionism, why a ticket from London to Beirut or Jeddah should costs twice as much as one to New York. The overwhelming evidence suggests that if people are exposed to more factual information and different experiences, they moderate their views and factor in greater complexity. We may still differ on many things, but at least we should get the facts straight.

** Steven Everts is a senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity.

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

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- Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt

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Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata