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Oct 7, 2004 10:06 am

The Real Threat to Civilization

I have just returned from a lecture tour of Egypt. I traveled to Cairo, Alexandria, and Assiut -- once the center of the Muslim Brotherhood – talking about the presidential election and American politics. The trip was one of those mind-blending experiences that change overnight how you see the world.

Forget the idea of a “clash of civilizations” that has become such a cliché in recent years. Most people I met in Egypt were devout Muslims. They may call God by a different name than religiously inspired Americans. But they draw from their religion the same lessons of mercy, compassion, and love.

The people I met in Egypt aspire to the same things in life as most Americans. A secure and reasonably paying job. A decent place to live. A good education for their kids. A clean environment. Freedom of speech. The right to vote in elections that matter.

I encountered no overt anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism, although Egyptians may not have known I was Jewish. People in the street were genuinely friendly and eager to assist a stranger in their country. And the educated public was hungry for inside knowledge about American politics and society. I found that peopled admired, not resented, America’s democratic freedoms.

I heard, of course, powerful objections to American policy in the Middle East, ranging from the war in Iraq to American support for Israel. But the Egyptians had no love for Saddam Hussein and some even admitted that the Palestinians were at least partly responsible for their own plight.

It is true that conspiracy theories abound in the region, often centered on the United States. However, for two centuries, from Napoleon to George Bush, the West has made life and death decisions about the Muslim Middle East without taking into account the viewpoints and values of the people of the region.

However, there is a lack of balanced knowledge about the United States, even among the Egyptian intelligentsia. In the question and answer sessions that followed my lectures I was often asked: “Don’t the Jewish interests control presidential election in the United States?” I answered, not with indignation, but with simple facts. The Jewish candidate for vice president in 2000 ran on the ticket of Al Gore, the Democrat. Jewish-Americans overwhelmingly supported Gore with their votes and their dollars. Yet George Bush, not Al Gore, is president of the United States.

To break down barriers of misunderstanding, we need more open, academic exchanges between the United States and countries in the Muslim world.

It was illuminating to watch the presidential debates from Cairo, trying to view them from an Egyptian perspective. Despite widespread and vehement anti-Bush sentiment, I also encountered many Egyptians who thought it would make little difference to their region if Senator Kerry prevailed.

It is not difficult to understand this indifference. The debate moderator asked not a single question about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the candidates brushed by the issue. On the Iraqi war, most of the passion was directed backward at the decision to launch the war. As for the future, neither would pull the troops from Iraq and both would pursue the training of Iraqi security forces, the building of infrastructure, and the conduct of free elections. Kerry looks for more international involvement, but he knows that the Germans and French are not going to send their sons and daughters to die in Iraq as substitutes for Americans.

The debate also ignored nearly all the real problems confronting Egypt and the less developed world. These include an enormous gap between the rich and the poor; immense and growing poverty; failing systems for health and education; shortages of pure water, arable land, and housing; a shrinking economic base; degradation of the environment; and the lack of civil and political rights.

Unless these deep-seated problems are solved – and most are not even mentioned in American political debates – there will be an everlasting supply of men driven to terrorism by desperation. And the possibility looms of political upheavals, ecological catastrophes, and much greater human suffering than people even now endure.

I am positive and optimistic about the people I met in Egypt whose ties to family and community help them cope with what appear to be impossible conditions.

I am not, however, optimistic about those conditions and the blindness of the developed world to the problems of Egypt and other societies under stress around the globe. Unless we awaken to the real challenges to civilization, the world may sadly reap the whirlwind.

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Michael Meo - 10/10/2004

My eyebrows raised a bit over the impact that a trip to Egypt had on your vision of the parochial state of political discourse in your native land. The United States of America has been ignorant of the affairs of the rest of the world for a long time; in the past few years we have watched a political elite take control that scorns knowledge of those beyond our borders.

I quite agree that this is a bigger problem than the victor in the current dog-and-pony show between the Repubs and Demos. My suggestion is, that it is incumbent upon those of us with knowledge of distant times and places to disseminate that perspective among our fellows.

Your moderately-worded, insightful post is a good example of where our responsibility lies. I have every intention of continuing to emphasize, in my courses as well as my conversation, how much the United States draws from European, Native American, and Islamic sources, and how much the Enlightenment owes to the discovery of China.

We can and we must repeat frequently that the doctrines of nationalism are responsible for the worst wars in modern history.