Amid protests, building understanding one person at a time


SALMIYA, Kuwait -- When protests broke out in Libya and Egypt on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, my wife and I were buying a takeout pizza for dinner in the suburbs of Kuwait City. We had arrived in Kuwait days earlier, as my wife began work at the American University of Kuwait.

As the protests continued, we -- including my 83-year-old mother-in-law, who had never previously been out of the "good old United States"-- were enjoying a welcome-to-Kuwait buffet overflowing with local culinary delights at the university.

Late last week, as the protests spread to 20 countries (including outside the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, and, curiously, the German and British embassies in Sudan), we attended a second welcome event. This one was hosted by Advocates for Western-Arab Relations (AWARE), a local center that promotes contact and understanding between Kuwaitis and Americans, Canadians, Brits, and other members of the expatriate community.

We were not indifferent to events. Conditions overseas are not always what they seem on American TV. Anti-American demonstrations don't always reflect attitudes in the broader society.

It could have been dicey to stroll outside the U.S. Embassy compound here after Friday prayers. But elsewhere, life went on as usual. Most people here -- and in other Muslim countries -- recognized that the United States as a whole was not responsible for the insulting video that was the demonstrations' cause celèbre.

Why don't all Muslims recognize that Americans aren't responsible for the ravings of the lunatic fringe? Don't they know that freedom of speech, even offensive speech, is a cherished right essential to democracy?

That the rule of law takes precedence over honor? That the separation of church and state precludes the government from imposing more than generally accepted standards of morality?

The short answer: No.

As AWARE general director Ebrahim al-Adsani explained at the welcoming event, people in this part of the world operate on a different set of basic assumptions about freedom, morality, honor, personal relationships, and religion from most Americans. Mr. Adsani was talking about Arabs, but non-Arab Muslims share many of the same beliefs.

According to Mr. Adsani, personal and family dignity and honor are the most important things in life here. Family, he said, takes precedence over personal preference. Affronts to individual or family dignity or honor are taken seriously.

For many Arab Muslims, he said, there is no separation between religion and the state. Belief in God is assumed; atheism is not an option. Social morality must be maintained, by law if necessary. Religious beliefs are sacrosanct and must be protected.

Many Arabs share with Americans the belief that everyone thinks the same as they do. That's where problems arise.

The people who participated in protests from Great Britain to Indonesia had diverse reasons to demonstrate. Some people were offended by the insulting video.

Others used the video as an excuse to express their outrage at the United States about other things, such as drone attacks in Yemen or the continued American presence in Afghanistan. Some demonstrators took part for reasons that were unrelated to the United States or the objectionable amateur movie.

Among people who were offended by the film, personal honor and the sanctity of religion required a response. In their world, courts would have banned the film and police would have arrested the filmmaker. They don't understand why that didn't happen in America.

Differences of this magnitude in basic cultural beliefs and expectations are bound to lead to misunderstandings. Organizations such as AWARE try to reduce tensions by encouraging cross-cultural contacts.

The welcoming event I attended was one example of the group's efforts. It also provides Arabic lessons; arranges tours of museums, mosques, and other sites; invites Westerners to traditional gatherings called diwaniya, and conducts excursions to desert camps. It also took part in a program that hosted a weekly video conference between Kuwaiti college students and students at Pennsylvania State University.

That's the way understanding is built: one person at a time. The goal is not to persuade the other person to your point of view, but to recognize that other points of view exist and deserve respect.

That effort is worth pursuing, both here and in the United States.

Kendall F. Downs is a former associate editor of The Blade who lives and works in Kuwait.

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