Relations between the Middle East and the United States are undeniably strained. Evidence of this comes to us every day through the news, in movies and television, and in academic writings. What, though, is driving this hostility and what can be done to end it? A survey conducted by Zogby International examining how Arabs view America and how they learn about it showed that Arab attitudes toward the US are unfavorable – the main reason given being US foreign policy. Arabs’ impression of the US itself, however, particularly its system of government, is generally good.
Arabs have great respect for the American devotion to freedom, democracy, industry, education, science and technology, and they also enjoy US popular culture. Furthermore, the survey found that Arabs who had visited the US or knew Americans had more favorable opinions of Americans and America, although attitudes toward US policy remained unchanged. Likewise, a Pew Global Attitudes Project report, in which the attitudes of both Westerners and Muslims toward each other were surveyed in 13 countries, showed that Muslims living in Europe tended to have more favorable opinions of Westerners than Muslims living in predominantly Muslim countries. Though their opinions may also be affected by outside factors, it is also likely that their opinions, too, are moderated by contact with Westerners. Studies like these have been a great boon to those who believe that increasing contact between Arabs and Americans – and between Muslims and Westerners in general – can lead to improved understanding and relations. This has stimulated the sprouting of programs that aim to foster such contact, and in fact the authors of this article were fortunate enough to meet each other through one such program, the Soliya Connect Program. Soliya is an inter-cultural dialogue program that enables students from seven universities in the US and eight universities in several Arab countries to exchange ideas and opinions and encourage awareness and understanding of each other’s culture. Using the latest communications technology, students actually have the chance to see and hear one another via Web cameras and headsets.
The program’s purpose is to expand students’ communication skills, enhance their ability to think critically about the US-Arab conflict and about media bias and reliability, and to have an opportunity to connect on a personal level. Each group in the Soliya program consists of four students from the US, four from Arab countries, and two facilitators, all of whom “meet once a week for two hours. The Soliya Web page is replete with resources such as news, interview footage, academic articles, Web sites, lectures and a forum where students can post messages and exchange ideas outside of weekly session times. Students have high praise for the program. InterMedia, an external evaluation firm based in Washington, analyzed program evaluations for three different cycles of the Connect Program: more than 90 percent of students said they would recommend the program to others, told their peers about their experience, and were happy they participated.
Students were able to find commonalities, and they demonstrated increased knowledge about US-Arab relations, improved understanding of the other side’s views, and increased interest in learning more about the issues. Nesma Ramadan, a student at the American University in Cairo, has remarked: “Soliya’s program made me gain confidence in my opinions. I had the chance to gain more knowledge about other cultures and also it helped me reshape my ideas about American policy.
Another student at the AUC said that “in Soliya, you have the chance to express your ideas freely, and there is no place for any extremists as the facilitators are controlling the dialogue in a very civilized way. As students nearing the end of our own experience with the Connect Program, we agree – Soliya is an admiral step towards examining the relationship between Westerners and Arab Muslims. We were able to set our differences aside and get to know each others’ cultures and traditions.
Although differences remained, this contact certainly gave us a new-found appreciation and understanding of important global issues, and also empowered us to learn more and educate others. Learning about the issues in a classroom setting or via the media is important, but nothing can substitute for the experience of hearing, talking to, and building a relationship with, a real person from another culture.
For us, this has been an unforgettable experience.
Heba Farrid is a student at the American University of Cairo and Josh Kessler is studying international relations and Spanish at Tufts University in Boston. THE DAILY STAR publishes this article in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.