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Winning hearts and minds: a lesson from Lebanon from The Daily Star

Winning hearts and minds: a lesson from Lebanon

In his State of the Union address, US President George W. Bush was proud of his policy in Iraq. But the truth on the ground is far more sobering, reflecting a growing gap between Arab and American thinking. For the US, winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is crucial to bringing about peace and democracy in their country. Billions of dollars in foreign aid will be wasted if the Arab world continues seeing the US as a dominator.

One way to help change the US image is through greater cultural sensitivity in American public diplomacy toward the Arab world. A story worth reconsidering in this regard comes from Lebanon, and I happen to be part of it.
The US media tend to portray Islam negatively. Similarly, Arab media tend to stereotype Western Christians as "Crusaders." As a Christian Arab-American, I am deeply concerned about the growing gulf between the societies to which I belong ­ between Arabs and Americans, but also Christians and Muslims.

I belong to a unique community of Christians who identify both with Christianity and Islam. Islam is part of my social and political identity. My best childhood friends are Muslims. I grew up in a part of West Beirut, and in a community, that resisted sectarian politics even during the worst days of the Lebanese civil war. In our neighborhood of Ras Beirut, Christians and Muslims lived for generations in relative harmony, not overly conscious of sectarianism. They went to the same schools and shared similar cultural activities.

Ras Beirut was a perfect site for the American University of Beirut (AUB). The social and intellectual climate of the institution played a major role in modernizing the community surrounding it. The impact of the multicultural AUB spread gradually to the whole of Lebanon and to the Arab world in general.

AUB, at its inception, wasn't secular. Missionaries established it in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College. However, they quickly saw the advantages of turning it into a secular university. For over 140 years Muslims and Christians from the region have received a quality education there that have made them pioneers, without making them lose their cultural identity. AUB graduates tend to be staunch advocates of democracy, diversity, pan-Arab unity and secular change.

There are lessons here for American aid and diplomacy in the Middle East. The first is that Arabs do appreciate American culture. Despite the ongoing tension between the Arab world and America in the last half-century, it is surprising how much reciprocal goodwill Arabs and Americans have for each other. At a broader level, the survival of Western institutions of higher learning in Arab countries is a testimony to the appreciation for American and Western values.

For example, during the 15-year war in Lebanon, many of the country's institutions were undermined or destroyed. What remained standing and functioning during the long crisis were three Western universities in Beirut: the AUB, the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University) and Saint Joseph University. Lebanese militias generally participated in protecting these institutions, and they knew well that AUB and its educational counterparts were too precious to attack.

The second lesson we can draw from AUB is that American institutions abroad should adapt to local cultures. AUB and similar American intercultural institutions in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world have succeeded to the extent that they welcomed local leadership in planning and encouraged Arab and Islamic thought on campuses. AUB has been a center of cultural diversity. The institution is one of the most open Arab-American spaces of exchange in the world. AUB friends and graduates raised $17 million in 2003 for expansion of services, a record despite the uncertainty of regional politics.

A third lesson we can learn from AUB is that true dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews is best realized through good deeds, not through a debate on God. Theologians have tried for centuries to bridge the gap between organized religions through seminars and encounters on theoretical issues ­ and failed miserably. These theologians have also trespassed for too long in the political arena, only to create walls of separation among people. However, Christian, Muslim and Jewish reformers who have applied their faiths in health, education and technology have managed to find durable common cause in the Middle East.

As the US plans to spend money in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, it is tempting for policymakers to invest disproportionately in infrastructure projects, while allocating far less to education and cultural institutions. Let us hope this will not be the case. Institutions like AUB help in winning the hearts and minds of Arabs, while portraying Islam as a religion of violence risks undoing decades of American hard work in the Middle East.

Ghassan Rubeiz is a Lebanese-American social scientist living in Washington. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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