Monday, May 01, 2006

The American Culture Shock Works for Sure

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“Would Osama Bin Laden have ended up so anti-American if he had the chance you had to live and study in the US?” the American journalist wondered.

I gave him a long answer (sorry it wasn’t an easy question): “Many Muslims went to America conservative and came back liberal. Others only became conservative, even radicals, after their American experience. A few remained uninfluenced either way.

Said Qutub, the godfather of Islamic radicalism, was a romantic poet before he lived for a short while in Colorado, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Still, he wrote later about his discovery then and there of the Western decadence and how he decided to change course to fight the US influence on the Muslim world. His books persuaded many Muslim generations and led them on the way of confrontation with Western values and with Muslim regimes that do not strictly adhere to the Shariah.

On the other hand, most people I know, young and old, returned from America positively impressed. A prominent anti-US leftist told me after his first visit: I discovered that America is not just pro-Israel Congress and White House. It is also the hospitable, friendly, open and generous people.

During the cross-Atlantic flight from London to New York, my American neighbor told me all about his life and family, showed me their pictures, and discussed everything from the environment to US foreign policies. We agreed and disagreed, but he never showed any anger, arrogance, stubbornness or hostility. Before we parted ways, he gave me his card, invited me home, and ... presented me with a medal of honor he received in the US Army.

Are all Americans like that? I didn’t live enough in the States to judge, but all the people I met from the steward on the airplane, to the passport officer, to the man in the street, were so nice to me. How could I hate a country with such lovely attitude? How could I ever hate America the country, the people and civilization? No, from now on, I’ll just hate their foreign policies.

Going to America right away from a conservative society is usually a huge culture shock. Many cannot cope, but most do process the change and absorb the different lifestyle, in time. America, as an immigrant society, more than most Western nations, has the capacity of accommodating and welcoming strangers. Depending on the place you happen to visit or live in, you may get easier or harder transit experience. Young and liberal get on faster than the older and conservative, but somehow, almost all manage to manage.

Back to the original question, I don’t think Osama, who did shortly visit America in the 1970s for medical treatment for his son, would have changed fundamentally. His stand is more political than social. His criticism is directed at US foreign policies, not at American social attitudes. But knowing how friendly the average American is, I’d bet that would have made a good impression on Osama.

I was lucky to have known American expatriates since childhood. The kids in the nearby compound were my playmates. This allowed me to see the different other not as a stranger or an enemy but as a friend. After years of study in the US, the positive image was enforced. My professors, classmates and neighbors of all faiths, races and colors showed me that no matter what a person’s background maybe it is how he treats you and what ethics and values he upholds that matters.

I would imagine that for the anti-Americans of the world to live in such a liberal, friendly, and civilized environment as I did in Eugene, Oregon would have made them more tolerant and friendly and less suspicious and hostile. It would moderate their anger toward the public who elected a government they despise. It would make them understand that electing a president doesn’t necessarily mean supporting all his foreign policies.

That is one reason I encourage our students, professionals and opinion and community leaders to have such experience and exposure.

It defeats our best intentions and purposes to encourage studies in the States and then find it so difficult and humiliating to get a visa. It would very much help if we expand on Saudi-American visitor exchange programs, workshops, conferences and scholarships. We need more of face-to-face, people-to- people meetings.

Only by building a direct bridge between our peoples and cultures will we get to know each other, and care for each other. Love doesn’t grow in abstention.

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