23 July 2004
We are standing at the beginning of a relationship. It has been an admittedly rough start, but we still have the opportunity to set the course of how this relationship develops. We can choose to ignore facts, rely on biased media, dismiss that which is different, succumb to prejudice, and enter into a long showdown in which both sides will be disabled and any victory will be pyrrhic. Or, we can break with the pattern of our national past, choose a new way, and develop a positive friendship with the people of the Middle East.
Should we choose the latter, it would be helpful as a start to look for points of intersection between their culture and ours so that the foreign becomes familiar. Most Americans have never been to the Middle East, they don’t know many (or any) Arabs, and they have little contact with or knowledge of Islam. There is hardly a connection with this branch of humanity whatsoever, hardly any traction with which to get our congenial footing.
The same disconnect is true on the other side. Most of the people of Iraq had never met an American before last year’s invasion. “We thought all Americans were angels,” one young dentist told me. In the minds of Iraqis living under Saddam’s oppression, Americans represented freedom and decency, prosperity and kindness. It’s hard to live up to those expectations, and most Iraqis, to include my dentist friend, no longer think of us quite that way. “And we thought you were all so smart, too,” my friend continued, this time directing her comments to me specifically. “Before the war I thought all Americans were scientists and invented things and knew all about computers. But that is not true. You do not know anything about computers. Why don’t you know anything about computers?” It was then that I taught my young female friend the definition of the word “nagging.”
If the pre-relationship image of Americans shared by the Iraqis was incredibly positive, the image we held of them and their neighbors certainly was not. Even before September 11th, 2001, most Americans thought prejudicially at worst, paternalistically at best about Muslim Arabs. We, as Americans, know very little about Islam or about the people of the Middle East. While not all Arabs are Muslim (Iraq has over one million Christians, Egypt even more), and not all Muslims are Arabs (80% are not), Islam and Arab culture are now front and center. Both are mysteries to most of us.
We are starting from Ground Zero, both literally and figuratively. The introduction of Arabs to Americans and vice versa has been rather abrupt. Nineteen Saudis slammed two planes into the World Trade Center, killing 3,000 Americans. In turn, 130,000 Americans rolled into Iraq and have killed 12,000+ Arabs so far. This is perhaps not the best way to start a relationship. But the relationship has begun nonetheless. And for the rest of our natural lives, the development of this relationship between the Middle East and America will be a constant matter of policy debate and personal exploration for citizens on both sides.
On the matter of religion (for we have covered and will continue to cover culture in other dispatches), let us consider the following scriptural passage:
“And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”
Is this from the woman-subjugating Koran? Nope. These are the words of the Apostle Paul. First Corinthians, Chapter 11, Verses 5-9.
Islam need not be an alien religion. The central ideas of Islam are that there is one God, that human beings are accountable for their actions, that physical life is transient, and that entry into a pleasant afterlife will depend on how we conduct ourselves on earth. This should sound very familiar to any Jew or Christian. In Damascus I was surprised to see Muslims praying in front of the tomb of John the Baptist. In Jerusalem, I saw a group of hijab-wearing women worshipping at the tomb of the Virgin Mary. The truth is that, when it comes to values and central prophetic figures, Islam has much more in common than not with Christianity and Judaism. Somehow that truth never reaches the ears of Americans. The followers of these three faiths believe themselves to be descendents of Abraham. It follows then that they are all cousins on the spiritual plane.
Unfortunately it was another type of plane that brought us all, Americans and Middle Easterners, together so suddenly. The 19 murderers who sought to initiate an apocalypse were no more representative of the typical Arab Muslim than Jeffrey Dahmer is of the American Christian. We must now make that choice between shutting our eyes, hearts, and minds or reaching out to a people who fall in love, go to work, laugh, cuss, and pay the rent just like we do. We need to find those intersections of common experience that make the foreign familiar, and the feared foe a new-found friend.
Living here, I find those intersections everyday. The other morning, while I was out jogging in Amman, I saw a woman in a Toyota Corolla pull up to the house of her car pool mate. As the lady got in, the driver carefully handed her steaming coffee in a Styrofoam cup. The woman smiled and took an equally careful sip of her much appreciated morning caffeine. As they rolled away to work, I thought that this could be a scene played out in Castle Rock, except for the fact that these Jordanian women were wearing headscarves. With them, at least, St. Paul would be pleased.