The vital work of cross-cultural dialogue | AspenTimes.com

The vital work of cross-cultural dialogue

Amid all the pressing concerns of the war on terrorism, Homeland Security and the desperate Israel/Palestine situation, it’s easy to lose sight of a fundamental misunderstanding that underlies relations between the Arab world and the Western world.

It’s the misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, that leads to common Arab and American stereotypes, such as the violent, gun-toting terrorist or the fat, greedy capitalist.

Like all stereotypes, these caricatures have some basis in fact – Osama bin Laden and Enron aren’t works of fiction, after all – but in no way do they honestly reflect the everyday Muslim or American.

Still, perception is reality, and it’s these kinds of warped perceptions that form public opinion on both sides of the divide. Negative stereotypes and misunderstanding drive everything from anti-American teachings in Saudi Arabian classrooms to anti-Arab slurs and “Bomb Iraq” bumper stickers in America.

Many have suggested that September 11 was actually the beginning of World War III. Certainly there are suicide bombers throughout Iraq and the Middle East who see it that way and are willing to give their lives to strike a blow against the United States and everything it represents.

This is no way to run a planet. And that’s why the work of cross-cultural communication is so important, not only at the diplomatic level but also at the grass-roots level.

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Convening a group of Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Hindu leaders for an “interfaith dialogue” may sound to skeptics like New Age fluff, but in the end it’s these kinds of conversations that may bring a measure of peace to the embattled Middle East. After all, religion is at the root of the problem and must be part of the solution.

So we’re encouraged by some of the efforts included in this week’s cover story, from former Aspen Mayor John Bennett’s Cordoba Initiative to Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni’s outreach efforts to schoolchildren and community groups around Colorado. Even at Basalt High School, teacher Ben Bohmfalk is teaching a comparative religions class and urging his students to ask the big questions about Islam and the West.

This is important work. It may not bear fruit next week, but in the long run it can only promote dialogue and understanding between two cultures on a collision course. And dialogue, any kind of dialogue, is preferable to World War III.

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