I suppose I’m jumping to a big conclusion, but I think the answer is “yes.” However, the effort might fail if America can’t understand the world, and our understanding of the more than 1 billion souls in the Islamic part of that world is often frighteningly faulty.
That, I think, is one of the main points I heard from Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute and a leading pollster of both American and Arab attitudes about each other. Zobgy spoke at Mount Mercy University March 7 as part of his book tour.
Zogby wasn’t just presenting impressions based on his opinion, but conclusions drawn from polling data.
Some of those pieces of statistical evidence are startling. For one thing, there is a clear and dramatic attitudinal difference between how Islam and the Arab world is viewed, depending on whether the American who is asked is a Republican or Democrat.
Ten years ago, right after a handful of radicals from the Arab world engaged in deadly terrorist attacks on the United States, 75 percent of Americans polled said they needed to learn more about the Islamic world. Today, that figure is more like 50 percent. After thousands of American deaths in two wars, we remain ignorant but no longer want to learn.
Among Republicans, 85 percent have an unfavorable view of Islam and consider it a threat.
Zogby took some Republicans to task for their opposition to mosques in American—not only in New York near Ground Zero, but in other places, such as a community in Tennessee. The same voices raised against the mosque are also calling for educational changes in American—changes that would increase American ignorance towards and distrust of Islam.
Now, folks, a bit of an aside from a plain old Iowan. One of the oldest Islamic communities in the United States is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the “mother mosque” is located, and where there is a vibrant Islamic center. Zogby asked us how we felt since we’d been “conquered” by Islam—obviously, since, apparently, mosques are symbols of Islamic conquest.
Ha. Not so much. Cedar Rapids may be home to the mother mosque but it’s pretty clearly middle America, and the dirty little secret is that the Irish and German and Czech (and Hungarian, not so many of us, but don’t forget the Magyar) immigrants who populate Iowa have no problems getting along with the Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese, etc., in our midst. America may be more of a quilt than a melting pot, but where the community doesn’t rise up against its local mosque, the mosque poses no threat to the fabric of the community. Score a big one for Zogby.
I don’t think I have adequate notes to describe all of the fine point he made. He was a provocative, thoughtful speaker. Just to touch on a few points he made:
- American education may be going backwards. Zobgy described the texts of his youth as using a “stone age man to Ike” approach, where, apparently, humans became civilized as they painted in caves in France and then evolved throughout Europe until finally Eisenhower became president at the culmination of all that was good. Asian and African “civilization” was not only left out, so was the idea that Asia and Africa could be civilized or that those civilizations could influence our western culture. Some of the same anti-mosque voices have been trying to reform education by emphasizing a rather narrow “American” attitude, which isn’t really American at all but rather a quaint rejection of modern ideas. I think Zogby makes a good point, and I like the “stone age man to Ike” analogy.
- Obama hasn’t always lived up to the strength of his own rhetoric, but his speech in Cairo still echoes in the Arab world and signals an opportunity to change our relationship with that world. In fact, a large majority of Arabs like American culture and want more of it. Zogby’s polling provides an interesting contrast, where a majority of Americans think that the Arab world dislikes our democratic values, while the majority of Arabs have a clearly favorable view of much of American culture, particularly our democratic values.
- Zogby noted many myths Americans believe about the Arab world. One problem is that American don’t know enough about the vast areas of the Middle East and North Africa to recognize that many group of diverse people from difference cultures live there, and we shouldn’t lump them together too much. On the other hand, there are some cultural strands that do bind Arabs together—such as a deep vested interest in the Palestinian issue—so that we shouldn’t ignore the connections in that part of the world, either. Zobgy drew a useful comparison to the United States, where a kid from Alabama and a kid from Brooklyn would have very different cultural experiences, but nonetheless would share a great deal of American culture and heritage.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. I would like to get a copy of Dr. Zogby’s book—it sounds like a fascinating read.
And put me in the category of American who recognizes I need to keep an open mind and learn more.