Coordinated Action is Needed

by Samer Shehata
Dialogue and mutual understanding between the Arab and Muslim worlds and the United States has never been more urgently needed. At a time when international public opinion toward the United States and American public opinion toward the Arab and Muslim worlds is at its lowest, it is imperative that people worldwide work toward increasing genuine understanding and mutual respect.

Organizations and citizens worldwide have been working to foster this respect, but despite these grassroots efforts, both regions of the world still harbor distorted views of the other. Recent studies by the Pew Research Center and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reveal that Americans increasingly hold negative attitudes toward Muslims and Islam. In the summer of 2003, for example, the Pew Research Center reported that increasing numbers of Americans believe that Islam encourages violence. More recently, a poll conducted for CAIR in June 2004 revealed that only 2% of Americans held positive images of Islam, compared with 32% who held negative impressions of the religion.

Public opinion research done in the last three years by different organizations also indicates that the United States has never been viewed more negatively by Arabs and Muslims -- not to mention the rest of the word -- than it is today. In a poll conducted last summer by Zogby International, for example, only 2% of Egyptians, 4% of Saudis, and 11% of Moroccans said they held favorable views of the US. These figures are down from already low figures in 2002 representing a dramatic worsening of an already troubling situation. Muslims worldwide find themselves trying to explain that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims do not “hate” the United States, American values or freedom but disagree with specific US government policies toward the region.

There are numerous reasons for these distorted views, but despite these reasons people in both regions need to recognize our common humanity – all that we share and not just what sets us apart. From Tunis to Texas, fathers and mothers desire quality education for their children, adequate health care, decent housing, good jobs, a better future and, of course, security.

In order to recognize our common humanity we need more exchange, interaction, and increased opportunities for Americans to learn about Islam and travel to the Middle East. More cooperation is needed between educational institutions in the Arab and Muslim world and the US. Greater numbers of young people in the Arab world should be allowed to study in the United States. Artists, intellectuals, scientists, community leaders, and students should be moving across borders at unprecedented levels – in all directions – in order to make dialogue, engagement, mutual respect, and understanding a reality. Sadly, because of the Bush administration’s visa policies, exactly the opposite is happening.

But even increased movement across borders is not enough. In this age of globalization, coordinated action by people in the Arab and Muslim world and the US is also urgently needed. Globalization means increased interconnectedness. It entails deepened and accelerated movement of information, capital, and people across the planet. Globalization, however, should also mean that people in Cairo and Chicago can act together for a common purpose, whether it is to prevent Palestinian homes from being demolished (to condemn the killing of civilians) or to push for greater respect for human rights and political freedoms in the Arab world.

Non-governmental organizations in the Arab world, for example, should not hesitate to cooperate with similar non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, and elsewhere in order to pressure Arab governments to implement needed political reforms and uphold human rights. Let me be clear: I am not calling on Arabs or Muslims to support the initiatives of the Bush administration or the US government. But I am suggesting that Arabs concerned with human rights and political freedoms should engage with like-minded American and European non-governmental organizations in order to further political freedoms in the Arab world. Together we can and should expand the space of political contestation, debate, and action in the Arab world, something that will ultimately strengthen Arab society vis-à-vis external powers.

Another example of multi-national citizen action includes the existing movements in the US and Israel to pressure the Caterpillar Corporation to stop selling armored bulldozers to the Israeli government, which uses the equipment to illegally demolish Palestinian homes. Individuals and non-governmental organizations in the Arab and Muslim world should act together with their counterparts in the United States and Israel to demand corporate social responsibility. Coordinated action can also raise awareness about the counterproductive practice of home demolition – a practice that violates fundamental human rights and does not facilitate the goal of achieving a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

These are just two small examples of the types of coordinated action between individuals and organizations in the Arab and Muslim world and the United States that can make a difference. Working together will ultimately generate greater understanding and awareness that people in the Arab and Muslim world and United States share mutual concerns and a common humanity.


Samer Shehata teaches Middle East and Arab politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Source: CGNews, December 3, 2004

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
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
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Other articles in this series

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