FIRST PERSON SHEIKH NAHAYAN BIN MUBARAK AL-NAHAYAN
Editor's note: The following comments were delivered Thursday in Dubai at the opening of a Young Presidents Organization (MENA region) retreat.
In 1889, Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Ballad of the East and West," first appeared in a publication titled, "Barrack Room Ballads." The first line of the poem is: "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
This line quickly became world-famous. Often quoted out of context and frequently misinterpreted, it became the basis for too easy an acceptance of the idea of an unbridgeable cultural divide. That assumption - of an unbridgeable, cultural divide - still prevails in too many quarters of the world today.
I believe a more thoughtful reading of the 1907 Nobel Laureate's poem shows that he believed - indeed, he fully understood - that for East and West, and as a general proposition, common ground is possible when equals come to know one another.
It would be hard to find a cleaner illustration of how different the world can look, depending on the assumption from which one begins.
Clearly, the prevailing view today is that there is a "divide," a state of misunderstanding, between Arabs and the West.
In the West, the prevailing view is that there exists a cultural divide. Cultural and religious factors are seen as responsible for the current state of Arab societies. Issues such as poverty, lack of economic opportunity, the low status of women, the spread of violence, the prevalence of conflict, ineffectual systems of government and hostility toward the West are all explained as results of culture and religion. Islam is viewed as incompatible with modernization, and Muslims seen as not contributing to modern civilization.
This Western view misses the point. It ignores the economic, political, social and historical factors at the root of these problems. Furthermore, this view tends to harden attitudes that the Arab world is inherently incompatible with the contemporary global society. The result: walls of suspicion, despair and rejection.
The prevailing view in the Arab world is completely different. Political issues are seen as the heart of the divide. This is traceable back to colonialism, to the West's historical lack of interest in the political and economic development of the region, to a double standard for Israel and Palestine, and to cynical use of religion and culture for political and military conquest.
Arabs reject what they consider the patronizing attitudes displayed in some Western circles where Muslims are seen as inferior.
To the Arab people, universal values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, personal and collective responsibility - are all values and aspirations that are supported by Arab and Muslim history and traditions.
Arabs are dismayed at their general conditions and circumstances. Their lack of influence in world affairs and their inability to break out of the grip of poverty and backwardness cause humiliation and undermine their ability to unite in the face of the challenges.
Edward Said has called these two different views of the world - this state of misunderstanding between Arabs and the West - "a clash of ignorance." As an Arab and a Muslim, I strongly believe that we must discredit the religious and cultural interpretation of the divide and focus on its social, economic, historical and political causes.
A religious and cultural interpretation naturally gives rise to conflict and visions of a bleak future. Emphasis on the true root causes can give rise to optimism and hope. Such an emphasis can help bring down the walls of misunderstanding and revive the tradition of tolerance and useful exchange among cultures. It can lead to respect for the differences between the two sides and celebrate the principles and values that unite them.
We must educate the public opinion and policymakers on both sides. To the West, we must make it clear that Islam is not a menace. We must deal with the tendency in some circles to regard Islam as a potential threat to Western life and a challenge to Western civilization. To the Arab world, we must be able to articulate Western concerns. We must identify the forces of confrontation on both sides, and deal effectively with them. Peace in the Middle East is our shared objective.
We need to focus on the positive in the relationship between Arabs and the West. We are neighbors. There has always been a constant cultural flow and exchange between the West and the Arab world. We should highlight this relationship between the two, rather than focusing on conflict and war.
We need to dispel stereotypical attitudes. We need to nurture new ways of thinking. The media should be expected to play a more constructive role.
My public responsibilities in the United Arab Emirates are in education. I strongly believe that education - on both sides - is one important answer to this divide. Education is an effective force for understanding, progress, and stability. Education offers us a way to deal with the "clash of ignorance."
Education is one of the most effective ways to address the root causes that fuel hatred and mistrust, and is crucial in our attempts to change perceptions.
We must concentrate on improving the content of education, both in the West and in the Arab world. Western societies' ignorance of the rich and diverse world of Islam needs to be overcome, while the Western experience needs to be presented and taught properly in the Arab schools.
We must encourage reform in our societies - eradicate poverty and open economic opportunities to all citizens. This is a sure way to combat extremism and violence.
We must understand that religious fundamentalism is not unique to any one religion, nor to any single region of the world. We must help societies deal with it in a normal, constructive way. Extremism breeds on failure and pessimism. Reform and economic prosperity inspire confidence and realistic hopes for a better future. We must nurture in our citizens the realistic hope for a better future. Progress, development, social justice, a reasonable standard of living and dignity for the individual must be at the core of all societal activities.
Let me conclude by saying that the attempts to erect barriers between Arabs, Westerners and anybody else are doomed to failure. We are here together on this planet, and we will be here together for the rest of history. I do not subscribe to the thesis of "the clash of civilizations."
It is crucial that we find more useful ideas of understanding, co-operation and peaceful co-existence in this interdependent world. Success in this important endeavor will require strong leadership and mutual understanding.
Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan is the education minister of the United
Published April 08, 2005, The Daily Star