Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Call for West-Islam Open-Doors Policies

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
(Arabnews) Sunday, 11, June, 2006

I was in the middle of an interesting debate about why and how the fanatics on all sides are winning while the project for repairing and extending the bridge of understanding between the West and the Muslim world is slowing. Suddenly, I received a call. It was from a friend I hadn't heard from for ages. Once the best of friends, we broke off on a sour note.
As I explained to members of a visiting German parliamentary delegation last week, my friend and I were too angry, arrogant and impatient to offer explanations and ask for answers. Pain was buried in anger, and anger fueled by pain. A vicious circle that led us so far away from each other, that we couldn't even meet or talk. Jealous, ignorant and unwise friends didn't help. To one side or another, they offered sympathy, support and undying loyalty. That helped us through our psychological turmoil, but reduced the need and motive to solve our disagreement.
Many years later, my friend called. It was so unexpected and pleasant a surprise. In the first call we didn't discuss our differences. Later, we aired them and found they were so trivial and silly. We couldn't believe we had so much energy and focus invested in so unimportant issues while a lifetime of good and beautiful relations and feelings were sacrificed and forgotten. Misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinformation, acting on haste and jumping to wrong conclusions are mostly the reasons why so many good and prosperous relations go sour and keep that way.
I told Joachim Horster and his colleagues that mistrust and fear come out of ignorance and divide. When we meet and talk, a simple smile and hello go a long way toward solving complicated issues. The rest will melt away with enlightened discussions and civilized interaction.
The best way to achieve harmony between civilizations is to open doors and encourage people-to-people exchange. When I was invited to America as part of a Saudi press delegation shortly after Sept. 11 my beloveds were horrified. My mother almost prevented me from going. I wasn't as sure as I pretended, but I won my case and went.
Yes, at the airport there was some "special" treatment for Arab citizens. I was lucky but others had to endure hours of wait to fill forms and prove they were what their passports claimed they were. Once out of the airport all went as normal as it could be.
The Arabs and Muslims I met in that visit reported few, if any, inconveniences, mostly from overzealous or racist FBI agents and citizens. But there was no general trend or policies. No public hatred, closure of mosques, mass arrests of Muslims, or biased laws and regulations against them.
If only my fellow Arabs and Muslims could see that! If more of us could visit America and the rest of the Western world and experience first hand how untrue and unfounded their worst suspicions and misgivings were! But, alas, gates are tight for most, closed for so many. Millions of Muslim students, merchants, tourists and patients were denied US visas in recent years. Visas to other Western nations are becoming more difficult to obtain. Denial doesn't always come with explanation, which makes the denied feel rejected. Some were returning students, visiting parents, vacationing families and seriously ill patients.
In the meanwhile, the media and fanatics are busy feeding negative messages to both sides. No day is lost without stories aired and published about mistreatment of Muslims in the West, and Westerners in the Muslim world. Sermons, speeches, comments and op-eds exaggerate and inflame what is already an aggravated state of mind.
The only way out of this bad-to-worse situation is for governments to design and encourage all kinds of people-to-people visitation such as exchange programs, tourism, educational and cultural cooperation.
I know I have said this over and over again in the years since the breaking point of 9/11, but it is worth it. And as nerves cool down, anger is abated and wisdom birds return home, the call to welcoming and cooperation policies may find more sympathetic hearing and supportive attitudes.
I bet on this overdue outcome for the sake of humanity, civilization and our best interests.

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