Culturally Speaking

Cultural stereotypes and ignorance – not geographical distances – separate countries these days. Open any world newspaper or listen to any international television news channel, and you will be bombarded with headlines, commentary and spin about the global Arab Muslim community. It’s what’s making news in our tension-filled post-9/11 world. No wonder so many Americans believe that the Islamic world is our enemy!

But the Islamic world is NOT our enemy; ignorance is our enemy. Despite the fact that U.S. public polls indicate Americans’ willingness and interest in learning about Arab Muslims and their fabric of society – particularly post-9/11 – damaging stereotypes and misleading generalizations continue circulating. We saw plenty of that spread like wildfire across the Internet and email running up to the presidential election.

Islam is undoubtedly the most misunderstood religion in the world. The average American is unfamiliar with how the Arab Muslim culture is integrated within its religion. The average Arab Muslim mistakenly assumes American views are controlled by special interest groups opposed to Islam. In short, there is profound ignorance on both sides between what we know to be true and what we choose to believe.

We are making strides though. Our new president is highly respected in the Arab world and many Arab countries are cautiously optimistic about the new administration. In his inaugural address, President Obama said his administration seeks a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” with the world’s Muslims. Minnesota’s U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, Congress’ first Muslim, has long used his high profile status to enhance America’s image in the Middle East, and will presumably continue to do so in his newly appointed position to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

If cultural stereotypes really do separate us from the global Arab Muslim community, then what are we doing about it? On a national level, the Free Trade Agreement that is in place with some Middle East countries is bolstering these participating countries and the United States economically through goods and services. We have cultural exchanges – educational and business – through many kinds of organizations, which are excellent hands-on experiences for participants. But how extensive and accurate is the outreach? What are churches, mosques, schools and universities doing and teaching?

What are some of the cultural stereotypes average citizens hear, and how are they addressed? Has American culture really destroyed our family values? Is there widespread American media bias? Does Islam really preach violence and death? Do Arabs hate Americans yet want an American education? Are we intolerant of Arab Muslims and their culture?

Arabs and Americans share the most common desires for humanity; peace, respect, love of family, educational and economic aspirations, and basic sustenance in our current troubled economies with its vast global effects. Yet humanity continues to be persecuted in the name of religion, region, nationality and language.

Ignorance, which stems from a lack of knowledge, breeds mistrust, fear and eventually hatred. Once ignorance is dispelled, only then can we move forward to promote awareness, understanding, tolerance and harmony for one another’s culture, religion, and lifestyles.

I felt there was a need and value in tackling ignorance, so I wrote Culturally Speaking: Promoting Cross-Cultural Awareness in a Post-9/11 World. The book addresses some of the most commonly identified stereotypes between Americans and Middle East Arab Muslims, as well as the interplay between Islam and the Arab culture. To learn how you as an individual can begin to make a difference – or maybe just to satisfy your curiosity; afterall, that’s a first step too – go to http://www.culturallyspeak.com.

And remember: Ignorance is the enemy.

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