Dr. Steven Everts, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for European Reform in London, writing in Arab News (thanks to Ali Dashti), has noticed something:
In the past few years, something has gone wrong in the broader relationship between the so-called West and the countries of the Arab and Muslim world. Distrust, recriminations and resentment have mounted. Minor misunderstandings or disagreements have taken on highly symbolic importance and fed the cycle of suspicion.
His remedy? Let’s all get to know each other better:
Arguably the biggest problem is that we know so little about each other. Most people get their information from the media. And when Western media do stories or films about the Muslim world, they tend to use the familiar templates of “the war on terror”. The same is true for most Arab media: They too prefer to stick to the mental maps of Western hostility, exploitation and moral decadence. Despite the Internet and the “death of distance”, few people actually travel from the West to the wider Middle East and vice versa. Even from Cairo, a political, commercial and social hub in the Arab world, only a handful of flights depart every day to European destinations. To compare: Literally hundreds of flights depart for destinations in the West from Heathrow alone, which is just one out of five London airports.
More dialogue per se may not guarantee better relations, but it can help and would at least reduce the barriers of ignorance. Thus we need a dramatic expansion of scholarship programs and workplace exchange schemes so that more people know about life on the other side. Europe has been transformed through political and market integration, driven by supranational institutions. But the most successful EU program has been the Erasmus scheme, which gives tens of thousands of students the chance to do part of their university degree in another EU country. Similar schemes also operate for professors and other categories of workers. Together with low-cost airlines, they have probably done more for European unity than the deadweight of the common agricultural policy.
We need a similar scheme to link educational establishments in the West to those of the Arab and Muslim world. And, why not, we must also explore the possibilities of introducing low cost air travel on routes to and from the Middle East. There is no reason, other than politically inspired protectionism, why a ticket from London to Beirut or Jeddah should cost twice as much as one to New York. The overwhelming evidence suggests that if people are exposed to more factual information and different experiences, they moderate their views and factor in greater complexity. We may still differ on many things, but at least we should get the facts straight.
This is all just swell, Dr. Everts. I’m all for getting the facts straight. Why don’t we start with an honest public debate about jihad ideology and its incompatibility with Western secularism? Why don’t we discuss the ideological and religious roots of the idea that murdering children is a holy thing? If we could get all that out in the open and thoroughly repudiated in the Islamic world, we might really be getting somewhere.