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Building Trust Between Cultures
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Much of the mainstream media coverage throughout both the Middle East and the United States focuses on differences, whether they are cultural, political or societal between the two regions. Many of these differences have been highlighted during our dialogue, ranging from views regarding terrorism to societal attitudes regarding religion. While there is little doubt in my mind that in many respects, the Middle East and the United States have divergent sets of historical narratives, I would like to focus on areas where I feel the two regions may converge in the hope that this starting point can foster intercultural dialogue and understanding.

To begin with, there are minute yet important cultural convergences between the two regions. Despite a lack of support for US foreign policy, American movies are extremely well received in the Middle East. One Arab student commented during a dialogue session that "we don't like American movies, we love them." Dramatic Hollywood scripts aside, I found this very interesting, as American movies are essentially a reflection of certain core American values and beliefs. Americans believe in happy endings, clearly-defined good and bad guys, and romance. That Middle Easterners turn out in such large numbers for American films suggests at the most identification with these values, and at the very least a desire to see and experience these values through the medium of film.

Continuing along these lines, there is the cultural importance of education. In "Control Room," the documentary on Al Jazeera, the director of Al Jazeera comments that he wants to send his child to an American college to receive the best education possible. He also said he would take a job at Fox News in an instant if it were offered to him. These comments are reflective of the aspirations shared by Middle Easterners and Americans to educate their children to the best of their ability, to improve their quality of life and in essence to live out their dreams.

Yet it might surprise people if I were to say that politically there are continuities as well between the two regions. For as recent events in both Lebanon and Iraq have proven, the overwhelming majority of citizens in these two countries yearn for democracy. Many are even putting their lives on the line simply to vote and join protests. There are clear signals within the Middle East that highlight the desire for a political system based upon representation and equality, which are key facets of the American political system. This was an issue much discussed within our dialogue. Many Arab students felt that imposing democracy on countries would not work and would have little legitimacy among its own people or in the eyes of other nations. This distinction never occurred to me before the Soliya program, and I feel that it is not a distinction most Americans appreciate either. Despite this disconnect, both societies still view democracy as a positive form of government.

A second and yet dismaying point is the level of distrust politically between the United States and the Middle East. During the dialogue sessions, I constantly heard how the possible invasion of Iran and past invasion of Iraq, and indeed much of American foreign policy was based upon the principle of protecting and defending Israel. Such deep-seated distrust and anger shocked me, until I realized that American society experiences this exact same emotion with regard to the Middle East. Lebanon's political revolution may have been engineered to the benefit of Israel is the view of the Middle Easterner, just as Americans think that higher gasoline prices are the result of OPEC countries' greed. Thus, despite the fact that the anger is directed at completely different sources and manifests itself in completely different manners, the fact of the matter is that American and Middle Eastern societies have a great deal of distrust for each other. I am not immune to this distrust nor were the members of our dialogue. It is this distrust that was and still is for me the most distressing. It is this distrust that as individuals and as two distinct societies sharing one world, we must strive to put aside at least temporarily to have an honest discussion. For while much is different between the Middle East and America, one fact is for certain: our futures may very well be inexorably tied together whether we like it or not.

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* Marc Marrero is a student at Tufts University. He participated in the Soliya program, an intercultural exchange program which brings Arab and American student leaders together on-line to discuss current issues in Western-Islamic relations.

Source: Search for Common Ground Commissioned Article, July 5, 2005

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

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