A cross-cultural perspective

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In recent weeks, anti-American fury has ravaged the Middle East. Following a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad, protesters vented their anger against the United States, blaming it for what they consider an attack on Islam and Muslims. This series of violent and non-violent events, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to attacks against embassies and other American institutions, has triggered debates nationally as well as globally. The issues being discussed are  freedom of speech, the “tolerability” of Islam and religions in general, the danger of religious political groups to national and international security, the feasibility of the democratic movement following the Arab Spring, and the reliability of the U.S. foreign policy in this region.

The majority of people in the Middle East connect the U.S. government and all 300 million Americans with the action of the one individual responsible for the making and posting of the film.

Muslims within the United States have reacted in a different way to this issue. Dedicated Muslim community organizations have initiated informational sessions about Islam and its message of peace; a number of mosques have opened their doors to answer questions about Islam. Reactions and actions of Muslims in the U.S. have been shaped by the environment those Muslims live in. They have engaged in civic communication with respect to the law and aimed at educating others about a different perspective.

As a North African woman, having the chance and the privilege of living and studying in three different continents and observing objectively such events, I wondered: What makes two persons who have a very close set of religious beliefs and values, react extremely in different ways toward something they both consider offensive to their religion?

I believe that the reason for the different reactions is a misconception and misunderstanding in what I will call the “Middle Eastern mind” of the legal and moral authority of the U.S. government in limiting the exercise of free speech.

An average Middle-Eastern citizen has never known democracy, never exercised free speech and has always lived under dictatorship. In fact, he has only known an omnipresent government that is driven by censorship; a sort of what I will call “God Government” that has the extent of power up to controlling every aspect of a citizen’s life, including his personal life. Combining all these factors together, it is understandable how a considerable number of people in the Middle East were led  to believe that it is of the U.S. government’s responsibility to prevent such a movie from appearing and, by failing in doing so, that government — in these people’s thinking — became an accomplice of the movie’s content.

Unfortunately, the average Middle-Easterner fails in understanding that American citizens protected by the First Amendment cannot be censored by the U.S. government. But, what has added insult to injury is that political leaders in the Middle East themselves have also promulgated misinformation  about this particular issue. These leaders have declared their intentions either to sue the movie producer or to ask the U.S. government to censor the movie and any type of anti-Islam work.

Being aware of the number of anti-Islam videos that are freely and easily accessible on the net, I wonder where we are heading — if  every video or book or painting sparks violent expressions of rage and political turmoil. In the aftermath of these events, I believe deepened security around U.S. facilities and diplomacy  won’t be enough to address the issue. The responsibility is shared by officials and members of civic society in both countries to create more dialogue between the United States and Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, which could lead to a better understanding of our differences.

Despite all those differences, I do believe we have by far more in common. Educating future generations in the MENA region about the American system and the basic fundamentals with regard to the First Amendment will induce a more peaceful and educated way of managing such sensitive issues. This objective should figure now as a top element in the agenda of all educational, cultural, social and political partnerships involving people from the MENA region with American institutions.

From my limited experience in explaining to other Middle Easterners the differences between our two systems, as well as how real people with extremely different sets of belief can coexist thanks to the laws and institutions, I concluded that violence is the voice and manifest of misinformation and miscommunication. Getting to know each other better through better communication is a light to modern salvation.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on Sept. 21 that Tunisia should not be discouraged by the latest violent actions committed by extremists. In the same sense, it is our responsibility as Tunisians and North-Africans to contribute to the process of education, dialogue and exchange with the world to build our democratic and stable institutions, thus to create a prosperous and healthy environment.

In the end, debates about the issues at hand could be used as a platform to export all ideas regarding liberty and freedom to those countries.

Hamdi is an engineering graduate student from Gafsa, Tunisia.