The latest program from the State Department to sponsor student exchange to promote cultural understanding to issue illustrates, ironically, exactly what is missing in such programs today in the US: exchange.
In a press release dated July 12, 2005, the State Department announced the creation of a new project under the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), "Study of the US". For the next two months, students from the Middle East and North Africa will study at three universities in the US: Benedictine University, University of Delaware and Montana State University.
Notably absent from the program is a real effort on the part of the government to send US students abroad. MEPI states that its key goal is to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the US, Middle East and Northern Africa." However, mutual understanding both implies and requires give and take; while it is certainly invaluable for Muslim students to come and experience America, it is equally important for students from the US to experience the Middle East and North Africa.
It is insufficient and oxymoronic to merely promote mutual understanding in a one-sided manner; it implies that Western-Islamic relations would be improved if "they" only understood us better, or perhaps even that they need to learn how to be like us. At this crucial juncture in modern history, with terrorism and religious fanaticism setting an agenda of divisiveness and hate, mutual understanding must also include first-hand American encounters with the rest of the world and the Middle East in particular.
Unfortunately, particularly when great distances separate two civilizations, myths about the "other" are continually perpetuated through ignorance and misinformation as a result of the lack of day-to-day contact that would otherwise lead to more mutual understanding. This forces both sides to depend on the media, stereotypes and political rhetoric to form their respective views of the "other." And despite the diversity within both the United States and Middle East, complexities and nuances are wiped away as both sides attempt to pigeonhole hundreds of millions of people as having this or that characteristic, this or that tendency, and this or that way of thinking. Instead they are "the other," and exhibit all the traits that we like least in ourselves - an exercise in collective psychological displacement.
Needless to say, there is a great danger in this practice. For example, many people in the Middle East glean their information about the West from Hollywood movies. Often these movies contain violence and sexually explicit material and are denounced in Muslim countries and an assumption is made that the lifestyle depicted in movies is one that all Americans subscribe to. In reality, most Hollywood blockbusters are spectacles, carefully crafted to appeal to the largest number of potential viewers worldwide by indulging viewers' desires to watch things get blown up and the hero take the girl to bed.
On the other side, things are not much better. In US media, news items involving Arabs and the Middle East invariably feature acts of violence, terrorism and suicide bombers. Each edition of the evening news treats Americans to new grainy images of Arab suspects accused of horrific and terrifying crimes. Terror and violence sells in modern America. The point to be made here is not that these men don't exist, because they do, but that they do not by themselves represent the Middle East and the diversity of the millions of people who live there. Yet with few other depictions available, it is inevitable that such images become representative of Arabs and other denizens of the Middle East in the minds of many Americans.
Political rhetoric also contributes to this problem. On both sides of the clash, political leaders strive for simplification in their message and meaning. While it is understandable that leaders use layman's terms in their explanations to their populations of world events and national policy, there is an inherent danger in simplifying too much. For example, to denounce whole countries as an "Axis of Evil" automatically precludes any form of mutual understanding, and instead continues to divide the world into easily graspable categories of "good" and "evil."
The divisive problems that Americans and Middle Easterners face require more than one solution. However, one viable answer is cultural exchange programs. Experiencing a country firsthand can dispel cultural stereotypes and myths. It literally has a mind-opening effect. This new awareness can be transplanted back to the home country through viral marketing, as former participants challenge what is heard over the airwaves and seen on television. It can also lead to policy changes, and, with enough participation, can begin the laborious process of reducing the use of stereotypes and needless racism.
It should be a matter of some concern that there are few opportunities for students to study in places other than familiar Europe and Australia. To challenge firmly held beliefs, generalizations and stereotypes exchange programs need to be expanded to as many countries as possible, especially ones that do not share in the United States' Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, safety concerns do serve as an important and necessary barrier to programs in some countries. However, there are still many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere that are both safe and willing to welcome American students, such as the Persian Gulf states, Egypt, and Morocco.
In the West, we must do far more than welcome immigrants and sponsor study programs for others to come to us. We must also push ourselves to try and understand cultures that are markedly different from our own. On the path to world peace, security screens, soldiers and guns will only get us so far. The remaining distance can only be covered by cultural exchange programs that help us discard dangerous stereotypes and find ways to share a globe that is becoming uncomfortably smaller at an ever increasing rate.
* Rebecca P. Tollefson recently graduated from Centre College in Kentucky with a degree in International Studies, and will be attending the American University's School of International Service this fall.
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