American, Arab Students Seek Common GroundRoundtable addresses heightened tension between U.S., Middle East post-Sept. 11By Dahna M. Chandler
COLLEGE PARK, Md.There were tense moments at times between Arab and American students as they discussed their reactions to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and explored misconceptions about their respective cultures. Held at the University of Maryland College Park, the two-day Colloquium on U.S.-Arab Relations provided a forum for approximately 20 Arab Fulbright students, visiting from nearly a dozen countries, such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and an equal number of American students to combat stereotypes and address the heightened tension between the United States and Arab countries post-Sept. 11.Frustration erupted often as each group tried to gain a better understanding of the other’s cultural values, and political and religious ideologies. Much of the colloquium was spent trying to determine the origins of stereotypes and perceptions of the United States as a global bully and Middle East nations as global terrorists. Both American and Arab students held their respective media organizations responsible for perpetuating negative images of the other group. But while both groups imposed some responsibility on the media, many Arab students said the American media were particularly egregious in their depiction of Arabs as terrorists. “It seems as if the American media purposely show negative and even false images to its viewers to widen the gap between U.S. and Arab peoples,” says Rula Khalafawi, an international policy studies student from Gaza, referring to the broadcast of images of Muslim adults and children cheering in the streets following the attacks on the United States. Brecken Swartz, an American communications student, agreed with Khalafawi. “The only messages we’re getting from American media is that Arabs are our enemies — that being American means we should hate bin Laden.” Conversely, Katie Swanson, a University of Maryland student, wanted Arab media to show Arab leaders taking more responsibility for the role their ideology played in the terrorist attacks. “I don’t see criticism of Arab foreign policy and how it contributed to the Sept. 11 attacks,” she argued.Many of the Arab students staunchly defended Arab leaders’ contention that America may have been attacked for its Middle East policies — particularly its continued support of Israel — which for many Arabs is equivalent to being anti-Palestinian.“The symbols of American ideology that killed Iraqi children were struck,” says Rawaa Al Saadi, a Syrian student studying civil engineering at Texas Tech University. “The terrorists did not think of the bombing victims as fathers or mothers that needed to go home to their children but as symbols of American foreign policy.”Gaza-born Fahid Rabah, an environmental engineering student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says Americans are ignorant about how U.S. foreign policy affects the Middle East. “They (Americans) need to care more about what’s going on outside of their own country.”Several Arab students, however, voiced sympathy for the pain caused by the terrorist attacks. Louay Abdul Rahim of Iraq, a student at the University of Connecticut, says, “The terrorists may be angry about American foreign policy but they had no right to attack America. The terrorists did not strike against the American government or American people. They struck the American spirit.”As the discussions continued and students put forth their own theories about the attacks, they lamented their inability to solve the problems in roundtable discussions such as the one they were participating in. Students on both sides of the debate concluded that there is an overwhelming need for both American and Arab students to make themselves accessible to groups in the opposite camp to educate and dispel the myths about their respective cultures. “It’s vitally important to understand the goals of both the terrorists and their backers,” says Maryland communications student, Mark Phillips. “We have to come to some sort of understanding about what it is that causes individuals or groups to commit these kinds of atrocities.”The colloquium was co-sponsored by the University of Maryland and AMIDEAST, a private nonprofit American organization whose mission is to strengthen understanding and cooperation between America ns and peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.
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