Jessica Thomas (COL ’05) remembers being startled while studying abroad in Sweden. People complemented her for being friendly and well-informed – despite the fact that she was an American. She decided that something needed to be done to improve the image of Americans abroad and joined Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster global understanding.

Thomas brought AID to Georgetown’s campus Wednesday evening with a town hall symposium on the state of U.S.-Islamic World relations.

A panel of four experts addressed the audience, each approaching the topic from a different angle.

Samer Shehata, visiting professor in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, explained the history of U.S. relations with the Islamic World while Helen Samahan, the executive director of the Arab-American Institute Foundation, described the experience of Arab-Americans in the weeks and months following Sept. 11, 2001.

Nikki Stern, the executive director of Families of Sept. 11, spoke about stereotyping and Wayne Knoll, assistant professor of English, metaphorically searched for an appropriate ideological solution for the modern world in light of current events.

Shehata noted that nearly every U.S. president since World War II has a doctrine named after him for policies dealing with the iddle East. There has been little consistency.

“Before Sept. 11 we were willing to support dictatorial regimes that were friendly to [the United States]. After Sept. 11 there is this crystallization that authoritarian regimes actually do [the United States] more harm than good,” he said. “It is not this idealistic dream of democratizing the Middle East; it is a very real goal to make the Middle East safe for the U.S.”

Nevertheless, he attacked the notion of democratic peace that has been prominent in the Bush administration’s policies. He believes the idea is flawed unless the U.S. addresses one specific problem.

“We can have democracies from Morocco to Malaysia but if you don’t solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is going to be terrorism against the U.S.”

Examining a question that frequently arises in discussions of the Middle East, “Do they hate us?” Shehata said that we need to deconstruct the elements of that question. “`They’ is rather broad,” he said. “There are 1.2 billion people in the Muslim world and there are lots of people there who like McDonalds and who want to go to Disneyland.”

He said that “us” is also problematic because it does not differentiate between the U.S. government’s policies and the individual citizens who may or may not agree with those policies.

Samahan then took up the increasing visibility of Arab and uslim Americans in the post-Sept. 11 world. While Arab-Americans have kept a relatively low profile in the past, she said, their public profile that did exist was dominated by negative images from the media.

“When Sept. 11 happened, all those negative images just exploded,” she said.

Many people, including non-Arabs and non-Muslims were accosted in the streets. Ten people were murdered in what she called the post-Sept. 11 backlash; the majority of those were Sikh-Americans.

Less documented were random acts of kindness toward the victims of that backlash that Samahan said were overwhelming.

“We had to explain to our Arab brothers and sisters in the iddle East that we were not under siege,” she said.

Stern, whose husband died in the Sept. 11 attacks, said that following the attacks, stereotyping emerged not only directed toward Arab-Americans, but also toward the victims and their families. While many see the Sept. 11 victims families’ as a united group, she said, “We don’t all think with one mind or speak with one voice.”

Stein noted that the U.S. has both positive and negative attributes, but its redeeming quality lies in its ideology. Speaking of the Sept. 11 Commission, she said, “Only here do we, the victims of attacks, create a commission to investigate what we did wrong.”

Knoll, who teaches a course on T.S. Elliott’s poem, “The Wasteland,” concluded the panel by offering what he believes to be the only viable ideology for a rapidly changing world faced with the challenges the speakers before him emphasized.

“Tribalism, at least in this part of the world, is outdated and irrelevant,” he said. “The only thinking person’s solution for an ideology today is that we are all brothers and sisters, mutually inhabiting this planet under one god.”

The event was part of the “Hope Not Hate” series sponsored by AID. Similar events have already been held at more than 20 universities across the United States and aim to raise appreciation of the similarities and differences between the U.S. and the Islamic world and to stress that “the U.S. must share America’s vision of opportunity and hope with the Muslim world.”

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