Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Building Bridges With America

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Last week I was invited to join the Saudi American Interactive Dialogue in Jeddah, titled “Fostering Community: Building Bridges of Understanding and Cooperation.” Sixty Americans and Saudis sat with each other on ten round tables, three from each side on every table, with one chosen as a moderator and presenter. We discussed two main issues: “The role of religion and social responsibility in community development,” and “The creating of a responsible media.” The conference was sponsored by Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and key business entities.
We brainstormed and debated the issues of the day, and came out with analyses, conclusions and recommendations.
At the start of two sessions, morning and afternoon, we listened to two keynote speakers, Jamal Khashoggi, media adviser to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi ambassador in London, and James Oberwetter, US ambassador in Saudi Arabia. Their perspectives were insightful, positive and inspiring. I would have reported their main points, but they were off record.
Most Americans were visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time. They came from all walks of life, but mostly from academia and intelligentsia. The ones I talked to were impressed, especially with our female organizers, such as Ranya Bajsair and participants like Maha Fetehi. They expected official welcome and hospitality, but they weren’t prepared for the warm grass-roots reception. They found that Saudis might have issues with certain US policies, but they are not anti-American, certainly not against those Americans who do not support these policies, like many in the conference.
The delegates went around, talked to ordinary people, and debated with male and female professors, intellectuals, business people, diplomats, reporters, and writers. There were no taboos and they and their Saudi counterparts weren’t shy of raising questions that touched on the very core of our political, social and cultural differences. Both sides were open-minded. Most were not defensive or aggressive. They just wanted to know, and they deserved what they got — honest, if not always agreeable, answers.
The atmosphere was positive and constructive. We talked for hours, from morning to evening. Many felt we needed more than a day to discuss more issues. We hardly scratched the surface. As one delegate put it, we were just warming up for the real match.
On the role of religion in community development, I told my American counterparts that they don’t have a problem with the real Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married Christian and Jewish wives. His friendly neighbor was a Jew. They visited and cared for one another.
In our prayers we pray for our Prophet, as well as Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them. On the day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, we fast celebrating Prophet Moses’ (peace be upon him) safe escape from Egypt. These stories as well as other Christian and Jewish legends are narrated in the Qur’an. The first and largest chapter is titled “Al-Baqara” (The Cow) after the Jewish holy cow, and another chapter is titled Yousef (Joseph) after a Jewish prophet. Mariam is the title of a chapter devoted to the story of Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus.
In fact, we cannot be Muslims without believing in all holy books and messengers of Allah, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; and their books, the Torah, Bible as well as Qur’an, I told them.
The real problem has always been with the politicizing and misinterpretation of holy texts, and the use of religion to rally the troops and achieve earthly goals and interests. This is true of all religions. The Crusaders were driven to the Holy Land to kill and conquer in the name of God. That is what’s happening today in the Muslim world.
My American partners were surprised. I wasn’t. Intellectuals on both sides failed miserably during better times to educate themselves and the public about other civilizations.
Whether out of bias and disregard, as Edward Said claims in “Orientalism”, or disinterest and laziness, the result is troubling. Today, people of the same-origin religions regard each other with suspicion and apprehension, reaching the level of hate.
Their stands are based on mostly misinformation and ignorance even of basic tenets and principles.
The first Saudi American Interactive Dialogue (SAID) was created in the wake of Sept. 11 to “gain perspective on how we, as business leaders, academics, government officials, journalists and students, can foster greater understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United Sates.
Although the relationship between our two peoples remains strong, Saudis and Americans are confronted daily by misperceptions on both sides. SAID aims to dispel such misperceptions in an open and transparent dialogue and by working together to build greater understanding.”
This conference was a good one small, but important step, toward building that elusive bridge.

No comments: