Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
"Why do you hate us?" asked the American lady in the next seat after she found I was an Arab. "But I don’t' hate you?" I responded. "You hate my country that is the same thing?" She countered. "No," I explained, "Your country is too large and diverse for anyone to hate. You have some eight million Muslim Americans, not including residents. Your country helped the world ending two great wars, and your scientists saved it from epidemic diseases and gave us electricity and so many other great civilization advancements. You can't hate a country as a whole, let alone a great one like yours."
"Then who do you hate in America?" She demanded. "It is rather what," I clarified. "I know some of us confuse the issues, maybe intentionally, but the majority don't. A poll after poll showed that most Muslims hate certain US foreign policies, just like most people in the planet—from its disregard of global treaties on environment and human rights, to exporting war and fear, to its blind support of Israel. Change of policies will change attitudes. Trust might take longer, but cooperation will fly right away."
"I hate war. I don't understand politics and have no say in the making of said policies. Why would I walk in any Arab street afraid of what people may do or say to me?"
"People in the street won't harm you, but they might tell you what they think of your government's policies. Since you are a taxpayer citizen in a democratic country, you do have a say and a vote. And you should use them."
I told her a story. After 9/11, I visited Eugene, Oregon, where I lived and studied for five happy years till the end of 1999—two years before the terrorist attack. I was afraid that the wonderful liberal, friendly environment had changed. I was pleasantly surprised.
To the contrary, my Arab and Muslim friends told me. Right after the event, many concerned citizens surrounded the mosque to protect it from possible attacks. Emotions were running high, and those beautiful Americans were afraid some militant groups or angry individuals might take revenge.
The good people of Eugene sat up daily vigilance for more than a week. The mayor and police officers attended a number of Friday prayers and reassured the Islamic Center management and Muslim residents of their commitment to protect them and allow free and safe access to the mosque. The University of Oregon administration showered its Arab and Muslim students with care, support and sympathy. So did professors and fellow students.
Proactive actions like this, especially when coming from ordinary American citizens, improved the attitude of Muslims towards their host country, and failed the terrorists' attempt to breed hatred and mistrust in both sides.
Other actions, like street demonstrations, as we witnessed in Europe, Australia, South America and the Far East, distance citizens from wrong state policies. There are other ways of influence, like writing campigns and protest calls to concerned legislative and state department as well as the media.
In democracy, the people are the base of the whole system, the source of all powers. Before 9/11 some may accepted the notion that Americans did not know or care about what went in the rest of the world. Now that the world is visiting the homeland, that is not an option ore an excuse any more. To say I have nothing to do with my government cannot be acceptable or believed even by the average man in streets of Third World countries."
My neighbor lady was silent for a while, looking ahead and ignoring me. Then suddenly she turned around smiling, shook my hand and introduced herself as "your American friend." She didn't promise anything, but in her now glittering eyes I saw a strong determination to change. More importantly, at that moment she seemed to understand that we don't hate her or her fellow Americans—only disagree with certain government stands and actions.
I never ceased to be amazed by the power of people to people communication. I am also amazed by the power citizens can exercise if well informed in domestic and international affairs, well aware of the game of power, and well trained on the tools of democratic influence.
The Internet, another American great invention, provided us with the tools we needed to overcome not only physical obstacles, but also established mass communication monopolies, such as media. Today, we could know more; work better, faster and more organized to make our voice heard and our wishes respected by states and leaders. Power to the people!