Revolutionize dialogue with the US

For a small fraction of the sum that they spend annually on national defense, Arab states can pool their resources, energies and talents to initiate a revolutionary new program of dialogue with the American people. Though such a program might not affect policy immediately, a carefully coordinated and sustained effort could have a dramatic impact on the way Americans think about Arabs ­ effectively liberating public discourse from the agendas of think tanks and lobbyists. The following proposal outlines how this might be done.

1. Arab states should endow an International Authority for Arab-American Cooperation (IAAAC). The IAAAC would provide a platform for public diplomacy as well as for a number of long-term educational and cooperative initiatives that build bridges between cultures at the level of civil society.

2. At one of its home offices in the Arab world, the IAAAC should host a Senior Fellows program. Each year, 10 leading Arab and US intellectuals would conduct original scholarly research on topics directly related to the mandate of the IAAAC. Research results could then be disseminated through occasional papers published in Arabic as well as English. In addition, senior fellows could be required to submit at least five different editorials per year to American newspapers, preferably to regionally important newspapers in a number of different state capitals. Editorials sent to such newspapers would face better odds of publication than editorials sent to national papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and would also be more likely to influence members of the US Senate and the House of Representatives, who are particularly attentive to opinions expressed in the pages of their home newspapers. Newspapers in states and districts that benefit from Middle Eastern trade and investment would be particularly appropriate outlets for opinion pieces written by IAAAC scholars.

3. Each year, the IAAAC could invite four delegations of American journalists, businesspeople and other professionals (including lawyers as well as academics and artists) for educational tours of Arab capitals. Each delegation could meet with Arab leaders as well as with like-minded Arab professionals, while also taking time to visit sites of historic and tourist interest. An annual conference on media representations of Arabs, Muslims, Jews and Christians could also be convened once per year within the framework of the same program. While seeking American participants for such delegations and conferences, IAAAC personnel should take care to avoid any association with individuals and groups that are known to harbor racist, fascist, or anti-Semitic views.

4. The IAAAC could hold biannual interfaith conferences in the region, bringing together Christians, Jews and Muslims to discuss issues of peace, justice, and mutual understanding. Participants could include representatives from liberal American Christian and Jewish organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, Sojourners (a progressive Christian fellowship), and the Tikkun Community (an ecumenical group inspired by the Jewish renewal movement). Mainline organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops should also be encouraged to participate.

5. To highlight the rich contributions of Arab civilization to world culture, the IAAAC should include an Arab Heritage Fund (AHF) and an Arab International Artistic Platform (AIAP). The AHF could produce subsidized translations of famous works in Arabic literature for general distribution by major American booksellers, while also producing high-quality educational materials about Arabs and Muslims for use by American school districts. These materials should not have missionary content; rather, they should represent Arabs and Muslims as human beings with sympathetic faces and remarkably varied cultural traditions. The AIAP could sponsor speaking tours and concerts by respected Arab intellectuals and musicians in America. CD recordings from concert tours by popular Arab musicians could be produced and sold at inexpensive prices.

6. To stimulate interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies among high school students, IAAAC should sponsor an annual essay contest. This nationwide context would offer 100, full-tuition, four-year college scholarships for students submitting the best papers on the Middle East, the Arabs, or Islam.

7. To promote the study of Arabic among undergraduate as well as graduate students, the IAAAC could offer 100 scholarships per year for advanced Arabic language summer programs at respected Arab institutions of higher learning. Summer programs in cities such as Rabat, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and Riyadh could be designed in ways that combine high-quality language instruction with opportunities to participate in rewarding cultural programs.

8. The IAAAC should also initiate an Arab International Semester for qualified students throughout the Arab world who wish to study abroad in the United States. 100 students per year would receive full funding for a semester of studies at leading American universities. This merit-based program would be facilitated through partnerships between leading Arab universities (including AUB and AUC, among others) and American counterparts.

9. The IAAAC could also promote excellence in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at the doctoral level through special dissertation awards. By offering 50 doctoral candidates per year ample funding to pursue their research, the IAAAC could make a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge about Arabic and Islamic cultures.

10. Finally, the IAAAC should convene four workshops per year on implementing the Arab Human Development Reports. Each workshop would bring together 10-15 Arab experts and international resource people, to address one of the issues areas identified by the reports. These conferences could be held in such diverse cities as Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad and Riyadh. Within the Arab context, they would provide valuable opportunities to discuss strategies for internal reforms, with particular emphasis on the importance of creating space for political participation, incentives for the creation of knowledge, safeguards for nonviolent dissent and opportunities for women to participate in social and economic development. In a broader international context, these conferences would provide Arabs with an opportunity to practice a fundamental premise of public diplomacy: showing off the diversity of views within your society, and even taking pride in this diversity can improve the image of your nation. By providing forums in which Arabs can discuss developmental and governance challenges with candor, determination and openness, the IAAAC can help garner greater international respect for Arab governments and civil societies.

Initiating this comprehensive program for Arab-American understanding and cooperation would not be cost-free, but the costs of maintaining the status quo in Arab-US relations are far greater. Old strategies of personal communication with American leaders are not working, and even less can be expected from new Arab efforts to court Washington think tanks. There has never been a greater need for programs that enable Arabs and Americans to form bonds of mutual understanding, and to engage in high-quality discussions about the issues that divide them.

We estimate that all of the activities mentioned above could be implemented for $10 million per year. If Arab states were to pool their resources and endow the IAAAC with $200 million (the equivalent of eight F-16 fighter planes), enough revenue could be generated on an annual basis to continue these activities for decades without additional expenditures. Surely the potential payoffs of the resultant strengthening in Arab-American partnership and understanding merit such an investment.

Abdul Aziz Said is professor and director of the Center for Global Peace at American University in Washington. Nathan C. Funk is a visiting assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. This is the second of a two-part commentary on Arab-US relations written for THE DAILY STAR





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