East and West — Bound to Clash?

How can the world bridge the gap between East and West?

March 10, 2003

How can the world bridge the gap between East and West?

Let's face it. We are on the brink of war and uncertainty in the world where anything can happen — and most of what may occur is not re-assuring.

The leaders of our nations have to make decisions that will put in peril, or harm's way, tens of millions of young people — the flower of the future.

These leaders cannot permit themselves to fail. After all, we are just at a juncture in history when technology, the sciences, the arts and other disciplines are coming together in a way that brings the world closer and which can mean a better life for all mankind.

They need to act rationally and civilly, put aside ancient grievances, insults and wrongly intended innuendo. They need to reach out across cultural, religious, economic and political divides to form bonds for the future — not to fracture the future.

To do otherwise is to invite apocalyptic disaster in a world threatened by weapons of mass destruction.

Let's be realistic. The West has failed miserably to show peoples in other parts of the world how they can benefit and prosper from — and enjoy — the fruits of the advances and developments that have taken place in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France — and many other democratic nations.

Instead, we have come across in movies, books, magazines — and indeed in all popular media — as arrogant, divided, greedy, unwilling to work with one another — and as consumed by materialism and violence.

Muslims, we are told, look at the West and wonder how people can conduct themselves in this manner.

In like manner, the Muslim world — more than a billion strong — has not communicated the richness of its culture and arts or the subtlety, sophistication and intellectual depth that often marks its daily life.

Instead, we in the West see terrorism, al Qaeda, the Wahhabi sect in particular — and closed, intolerant and backward societies fearful of democracy and technological change in general. We see societies ruled by religious fanaticism and growing suspicion — and often virulent hatred of the West.

So people in the West turn away and say they want no part of backward-looking, violence-prone Muslim life. At the same time, the Islamic world views the West with fear, trepidation and concern that the 'West's superior technology, cultural hegemony and financial imperialism will overwhelm their cultures — and their religious values.

The great irony is that both the West and the Muslim world care deeply about many of the same things.

Pollsters conducted face-to-face interviews last spring with 3,800 adults in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt — and among Israeli Arabs.

Each was asked 92 questions covering their values, political concerns, mood and outlook, self-definition, and how they viewed the world.

Overall, it might surprise some to learn, Arabs responded positively — not negatively — to questions about their individual situations and the future.

They were asked Ronald Reagan's classic campaign question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" And a strong plurality in most countries said yes — and believed that their children would fare better still.

Asked what matters most to them, Arabs reflected the views of those in similar surveys throughout the world, focusing principally on personal matters, including quality of life and economic opportunity, family and faith.

On the relative importance of values to be taught to children, they gave highest marks to self-respect, good health, good hygiene and responsibility.

Those values were followed by respect for elders, achievement of a better life — and self-reliance.

These same qualities are what everyone in the West aspires to as well. There is a lot more to it, of course. And I do not wish to oversimplify.

But if the West and the Muslim world simply communicate the way of life they experience among themselves and with the rest of the world, we will have taken an important step toward eliminating some of the threats we read about every day. And perhaps it will also help eliminate the terrorism that we now see on television screens almost nightly.

Who should do this? Everybody! Governments should lead the way. But businesses, large and small, non-profits, academe and every other walk of life should actively proclaim — and promote — the benefits and blessings they enjoy.

In doing so, people need to be open and take in the best of the West and the best of the Muslim world — and use that awareness to help further improve life elsewhere.

No one need roll over and accept another's way of life. All we need to do is to respect how other people live and to be open and accept that we do not have all the good ideas — and that we can and must learn from each other.

Many will say that I am being something of a Pollyanna taking this kind of rational, idealistic, visionary approach to what they see as a hopelessly unbridgeable chasm between the West and the Arab nations in particular.

They see those nations as deeply dysfunctional — caught in the straightjacket of a rigid, intolerant to exclusionary, ultra-theocratic society that is impervious reason and to Western values and modes of thinking.

I think of Professor Samuel Huntington's controversial "clash of civilizations" theory, which has taken on new currency in many quarters since 9/11.

It is an argument that has also been advanced by the renowned Islam specialist, Bernard Lewis.

Perhaps I am being naive. Certainly, a case can be made for that point of view. But I prefer to think otherwise. As that memorable ditty from the musical "South Pacific" put it: I remain "a cockeyed optimist" about the future of the world.

Both the findings of that in-depth poll of Arab world attitudes I spoke of earlier and my own fundamental view of human nature and human potential lead me to think our differences are neither intractable nor insurmountable.

My personal experience tells me that peoples, who were once implacable, to-the-death enemies can — in the fullness of time — begin to respect each other and even become allies and admirers.

Over the years, I have made many good friends around the world including a gentleman who, as a very young man, served with a German Panzer Division in World War II — and another who served on a Japanese battleship.

With the passage of time, the unspeakable barbarities and corrosive hatreds of that terrible era have given birth to what are, today, two of America's staunchest global partners.

Is such a scenario possible between the West and Muslim World in the 21st century?

I say yes! There are, to be sure, very serious, profound religious, cultural, ideological and philosophical issues that divide us.

But deep down, I fervently believe that there is a universal, common humanity that seeks a better, kinder, gentler life here on this planet — and that it will ultimately prevail. That is, after all, what this is all about.

I am reminded of a question put by a British citizen to Nelson Mandela several years ago. He asked, "Mr. Mandela don't you care about social responsibility, protection of the environment — and equal treatment for all in your country?

Mandela, one of the towering figures of our time, answered: "Of course, I do.

But first, I want my people to have a refrigerator and a car — and a personal computer. Then, I will encourage them to strive for what you so eloquently discussed."

So, in conclusion, here is what we need to communicate among ourselves — and with the rest of the world:

— Our core values of freedom, opportunity, peace — and a better life for us and our children.

— Our respect for other customs, other cultures, other values and other hopes for the future.

Is this a simplistic, unrealistic approach? Maybe. But when the alternative may be a costly, unwanted war, one has to make this kind of leap of faith. Is this naive and a failure to recognize powerful historical divides that separate peoples? Maybe.