28 July 2006

you may think i'm an open book but you don't know what page to turn to, do you?

Since I was featured on the UF website last month, it's been brought to my attention that I have become the subject of a campaign by the Arab student associations to have the "racist" spotlight removed. By featuring an American student studying Arabic who wants to work for the American government, it seems UF is implicitly supporting western insensitivity towards the Arab world, Islamaphobia, and perpetuating the stereotype of the Arabic speaking terrorist. Think what you want about me, but please don't pass judgment on my passions based on a 250-word profile I didn't write. Read this, ask me to clarify, call me when I'm back in the states and I'll be more than happy to sit down and answer any question you might have, and then I can fully respect your right to label me however you feel is justified. But frankly, I'm hurt that people have been so quick to write off an outsider's interest in their language and culture, and more stubbornly committed than ever before to understanding this region.

Soundbite response: I study Arabic because I don't agree with what my government is doing in the Middle East and I want to change it.

Long answer: I was crushed to hear that I've been labelled a racist because I don't look like the culture I study. I resent the implication that my intentions are some how dishonorable simply because I'm an outsider. I'll readily admit I don't know everything about the Arab world and very little about the Islamic faith (an ignorance not limited to Islam, but closer linked to my distaste for organized religion in general), but I only began studying the language two years ago. I'm twenty-one years old - I'm not finished learning yet. I wasn't born with an intimate understanding of the Arab world, but I'm fascinated by it and want to understand everything I can. I have an admittedly "western" view of the Middle East, but I can't help that I was born in the United States, and I'm doing everything I can to learn about this region, including visiting it whenever possible. I love the language and culture of a people who, until now, have always welcomed me into their homes as their own and encouraged my study of their language.

I opposed American intervention in Iraq in 2003, but I think that's become a moot point. The United States is enmeshed in post-war Iraq, like it or not, and the debate must shift to how to help the Iraqi people rebuild their nation on their own terms. I don't want an American-friendly puppet government in Iraq, I want sustainable democracy regardless of who wins. As I've said about the election of Hamas in Palestine, democracy means the people elect their own government, not necessarily the one America would like best. I want to be part of reconstruction Iraq to be the American who asks, "what do you want your country's future to look like, and how can I help make that a reality?" rather than says, "here's my solution, make it work." I want to be the advisor in policy debates who says, "Islam is not a violent faith. Arab doesn't equal terrorist. No, all Arabs don't hate the United States, and we'd do far better to look at the Arab world as an ally and not as a threat." What happens in reconstruction Iraq will determine the future of American policy in the Middle East. I want to play a role in ensuring that such policies make a positive impact on the people of the region, rather than foster growing tensions and resentment.

I'm appalled by the assumption that because I want to work for my government, I must agree with its every policy. I by no means hate the United States, but instead love my country so much I believe it can be better. The fact that I can here, in a public forum, openly criticize my government is, for me, the most beautiful thing about American democracy. The United States is arguably the most powerful nation in history, and I want to see it be a force for good. Power shouldn't flow from the barrel of a gun, and I would much rather see my country respected than feared, resented, or hated. The United States government has actively carried out or supported/condoned unpardonable actions in the Middle East, but how will that ever change unless those who disagree with those policies become part of the decision-making system? All of the activism and demonstrations against American foreign policy will come to naught without a sympathetic ear within the government willing to work for change. My country's foreign policy has to be based on cultural understanding in the Arab world, and at the root of that understanding lies the ability to communicate in someone's native language.

I was embraced as an ally by peace activists (Israeli and Palestinian alike) in Haifa and Ramallah, and while I bore more than my share of criticism for American policy in the region, everyone was always quick to distinguish me from my government. The women I met during my two weeks with Isha L'Isha welcomed the opportunity to hear an American outsider's perspective on the conflict, and encouraged me to continue my studies and work within my government some day to facilitate their efforts at home. Much of their time is spent lobbying Knesset and PLC members, and they recognize the value of a kindred spirit on the inside. I'm hurt that my fellow Americans of Arabic origin are unwilling or unable to accept that someone outside their culture could want to drastically overhaul American policy in the Middle East. I don't think so much of myself that I believe I'll change the world overnight, but I'm content in knowing that I'll have at least gone down trying to change a status quo I don't believe has to last forever just because it's lasted this long. Americans are criticized for stereotyping the Arab countries and Muslims as terrorists, but isn't the same thing happening in reverse when my interest in the region is characterized as racist just because I'm not Arab?

My "Arabic is the new Russian" quote garnered much of the initial backlash, but I stand by it. The United States has found itself, for better or worse, intimately involved in the Middle East but with a drastic shortage of language and regional specialists. Much like the early years of the Cold War, the American government, particularly the intelligence community, finds itself trying to conduct foreign relations with a region it doesn't understand in languages it can't speak. American diplomacy in the Middle East cannot be successful in such a one-sided fashion. The intelligence community cannot address terrorism coming from Islamic extremists without also understanding "real" Islam and the Arabic language. I study Arabic to be that person who has an academic background in a region grossly misunderstood in the United States. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Arabic is the "language of terrorism (just as Russian was never the language of impending nuclear disaster)," but instead belive it is a fascinating language with a rich and beautiful history. I'm enthralled by the language and the culture, and I fall more in love with it with each country I visit. I began studying Arabic because I was interested in the region and it was the only Middle Eastern language offered at UF beyond an introductory level (a problem in and of itself, but I'll save that for another day), not because of any assumption about its links to terrorism. There are those within the government who do hold that view, I'll concede, but how will they ever learn otherwise without exposure to the beauty of Arab culture?

Being in Haifa during the current fighting between Israel and Lebanon has only left me more committed to seeing an end to violence in the region. No one deserves to die because of their religious or ethnic (or anything else, for that matter) background, period. I don't want to see us divide ourselves on religious or political lines to the point where we cannot see past an adjective to begin to understand one another. If I'm wrong, then educate me - please don't take the easy way out and just label me a racist. I'm not claiming to have all of the answers, just a lot of ideas. If you'll join me, then I welcome anyone's input on how to build a sustainable peace in one of the most fascinating and culturally rich regions of the world.



Justin said...

Eloquently said. Travel safe. Please give my best to David, Allison and Joey.

mbn said...

You are wonderful. I am so proud to know you.

Anonymous said...

It appears no one has read the actual concerns raised in the original statement released about the 'spotlight' because they have yet to be responded to (or perhaps no one understands?).

You could have at least took the time to see who is heading this campaign--where is this "Arab student association" you speak of?

Anyways, a member from one of the organizations clarified that this is really not about about you, see http://nakba48.org/?p=142#comment-738