Anyone who knows me well knows that in high school I was a flaming liberal, the kind of person who would argue the Democratic Party Line even if I did not truly believe it. I think a lot of my thoughts were driven by a desire to separate myself from the thoughts and opinions of my parents, but at the same time a large part of me really did believe in liberal ideology. Over time, however, people change. You find new perspectives, new people to hate and disagree with, and your viewpoint is constantly changing. Although I find myself standing more in the conservative camp these days (to the dismay of many of my high school friends), I still hold certain liberal values close to my heart.
And so in spite of my shift towards more conservative fiscal policies, I still believe in many liberal foreign policy initiatives, which explains why I still adamantly refuse to take the COEXIST bumper sticker off of my car. And while I placed that bumper sticker on my car back during my more liberal high school days (desperately trying to spread the word amongst the crazy Republicans that passed through the hallways of my Catholic high school), to this day I cannot shake my support of what the COEXIST bumper sticker stands for: the desire to live peacefully with people of all creeds, religions, and cultures. A few weeks ago I had the displeasure of explaining the sticker to a modern “Tea Party” member, to which he replied, “I would be more inclined if those people in the Middle East stopped firing at us. They are a militant people.”
Unsurprisingly, it is worth pointing out that only ten minutes earlier this individual had told me he only used Fox News to fact check the Presidential debates, because to him, they were the “only unbiased fact checkers in the media.” However, his statements point to a larger problem amongst modern Americans, a problem that has plagued American citizens since World War II. First of all, it is worth noting that the Middle East is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse regions in the world. It spans from the deserts of North Africa to the Iranian hills bordering Asia. It contains Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), Christians, and Jews, and is home to a variety of different cultures, each one more unique and exciting than the previous. To attempt to place all of these dynamic cultures and peoples under one convenient political umbrella is a massive fallacy, and points to a general ignorance among Americans towards this unique part of the world.
If only I could say with confidence that this ignorance was simply a statistical oddity, one village idiot among a population of people with a true understanding of the region we call the Middle East. According to polls 85% of Americans could not located Iraq on a blank map; nearly 60% believe Saddam Hussein works for Al-Qaeda. I heard a song on the radio the other day by Alan Jackson, a popular country song in which he admitted that he did not know the difference between Iraq and Iran, a song in which he indicated that his feelings about the issue were truly American. Even the term “Middle East” is a Western concoction. Parts of Morocco are located in the same time zone as London, yet to Westerners this collection of nations is from the East, far away from the West, in culture and in everyday life. Despite this lack of understanding, Americans fear the Middle East. Or is it, maybe, we fear the Middle East because we don’t truly understand it?
For Americans, fear out of ignorance is not a recent phenomenon. Consider for one moment all of our greatest “enemies,” the cultures that most Americans have feared over the course of the last century. They all come from the East: the Japanese and Asia during World War II, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and now the Middle East and the Arab World. What is it about these cultures that strike fear into the hearts of Americans? Is it the lack of understanding of their world and of their lifestyles? All of these cultures use languages radically different from classic Roman lettering, they have different cultural traditions. They do not celebrate our American holidays; they dress “strangely.”
Over time our fear of Asian culture has partially subsided. We no longer look at the Japanese or South Koreans with the same look of confusion and mistrust. As a nation we have educated ourselves on their culture and understand their directives. Although our relationship with China has its regular bumps and bruises, it is the Chinese government that we (understandably) distrust, not the millions and millions of Chinese citizens that we have come to realize are just normal people living out their normal lives. It is a slightly more comfortable fear because we understand their culture and their way of life. Our history with the Eastern bloc countries shows the same incredible change. Countries such as Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic are among our great allies. Only twenty five years ago they were viewed with tremendous scrutiny, one of “those Slavic countries” that we could not understand, and did not want to. Similar to China, our relationship with Russia has its positives and negatives, but our approach seems grounded in understanding, which makes it more comfortable and less irrational. We do not fear all Russian citizens just like we do not fear all Chinese citizens, which stands in contrast with the generalization of the “Middle East” that many ring-wingers preach. This incredible change, this emergence of a new strategy, directly correlates with our cultures improved education on these eastern cultures, our understanding that these countries are not all the same, they do not all have the same objectives or people.
When I was a little kid, like all children, I feared the dark, and more so, I feared what was under my bed. I think this is relatively common among small children. But once the lights were turned on, and I was able to look under the bed, in my closet, I felt much better. I feared what might be there, not what was actually there. Despite my apparent fears in the dark, when the light was turned on I had no second thought about actually looking to see what was hidden there. This is human nature, our natural instinct is to fear something we do not know or we do not understand. Unfortunately this irrational fear of the unknown has defined our nation’s foreign policy for too long.
My greatest wish for our generation as we continue to grow and perhaps lead the world is that we can define our future relationships with the Middle East out of understanding, rather than ignorance. We must know what we are facing before we can make assertions about our objectives in the region. For too long the American people have shed darkness on regions throughout the world, finding it easier to bundle multiple nations into one convenient unit, one larger enemy, and one greater ideology. We need to understand that Tunisia is different from Egypt is different from Iran is different from Syria. Perhaps if we can apply this type of understanding to many of our foreign policy issues, the answer will come as conveniently as it did with the likes of Japan and Slovakia. It’s time to shed light on the rest of the world, and although we may find things we do not like, it’s always easier to fight in the light than in the shadows.