"Long before our differences, we are human." – Andrea Bartoli, Director, Center for International Conflict Resolution, Columbia University
On July 8, 2006, a Young Global Leaders Summit, sponsored by Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), was held in New York City, to debate and discuss the future of U.S.-Muslim World relations. The Summit was attended by 250 individuals from across the country, representing universities such as Columbia, Yale, and Harvard, and fields including law, finance, education, policy, and others. The heart of dialogue between panelists and participants focused on peaceful strategies to foster awareness and understanding of religious pluralism within the Muslim community, both domestically and internationally. “I think the diversity of the attendees and panelists, coupled with the eagerness of individuals present to pursue the discussions outside of the lecture hall, made the day beneficial for everyone,” expressed Sabahat F. Adil, a Director of Partnerships Intern at AID—an organization founded in 2002 by Marshall and Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University due to an immense need for dialogue. AID is working to build a new generation of globally conscious leaders who can shape American foreign policy in an increasingly interdependent world by organizing events akin to the conference in New York.
The Summit was divided into two panel discussions; the first focused on the long-term strategy for improving relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world, while the second focused on the media’s role in improving this global relationship.
In discussing these issues, panelists agreed that there is not one single strategy which, when implemented, would resolve all the issues, but rather a multitude of strategies must be applied in concert. Participants agreed that much of the friction is between individuals of different sects within Islam, rather than between the United States and the Muslim world. Panelists concluded that it is necessary to develop strategic initiatives rooted in core similarities to address the various strata of Muslim identities that are at odds with one another. In order to unite the Muslim world both within the United States, and within areas of international conflict, bridges that unite must replace walls that divide. Abdelkader Abbadi, U.N. Correspondent for The Independent, noted that, “The key challenge is bridging this gap with mutual understanding, and dialogue is the basis for this connection.”
In discussing effective approaches for fostering intimate cross-cultural dialogue, Andrea Bartoli, Director of the Center for International Conflict at Columbia University, stated, “There were two faces of reaction following the 9/11 attacks—on one hand, many supported the search for those who perpetrated the attacks to seek retribution, while on the other hand, the victims’ families created September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows—an organization advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, in hopes of breaking the cycle of violence engendered by war and terrorism.” These two faces represent a divide in mentalities, a divide in approaches, and a divide in understanding. Referring to the array of faiths and cultures, Bartoli noted, “Long before our differences, we are human.” Organizations founded in a common cause, such as on the principle of a common humanity and around issues relating to social justice, equality, and basic human rights, bring together individuals of all cultural identities to work together towards common goals. It is this type of framework which allows for greater dialogue between cultures due to the shared concern for global justice. However, attendee of the conference, Alexandra Dolce, Associate General Counsel for William C. Thompson, Jr., Comptroller for the City of New York, commented, “There is no cookie-cut strategy to mitigate and end conflict. Change and peace both take time, energy, preparation and dialogue.”
In addressing the political side of U.S.-Muslim world relations, specifically issues of torture and abduction, Deputy Director of the United Nations Office of the Alliance of Civilizations Shamil Idriss commented, “The same political powers that make policies are selectively applying them—this arena is full of double standards...we now live in a world which exceeds the notion of a common humanity, as countries’ economies, immigration laws, and now issues of physical security are undoubtedly linked together, and thus we no longer have the luxury or freedom to act in a purely self-consequential way.” Due to rapid globalization, the United States needs to approach these issues from a vantage point that takes into account the global consequences of its policies and needs to be able to predict potential backlash and positive results in parallel.
Another strategy to combat issues of conflict and misunderstanding, proposed by Jin In, Global Action Manager for Girl Scouts of the USA, was the notion of speaking the language, “both figuratively and literally.” In order to build bridges across cultures, In emphasized the need to understand the very issues from a host of other perspectives, and to communicate with others on a global level of languages. Communication is paramount to resolving misunderstandings, and in order to truly engage in constructive dialogue, it is absolutely necessary that one submerge oneself into the cultures of those one is trying to understand.
Sasha Mehra, Deputy to the Senior Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State for Women’s Empowerment, expressed the fact that the government’s role in improving not only U.S.-Muslim world relations, but also diplomatic relations of religious identities as a whole between the United States and other parts of the world, requires a revamp of the entire diplomatic system from the ground up which would take decades and generations to achieve. Following an explanation of the government’s efforts to engage in dialogue between the U.S. and Muslim communities abroad, such as the invitation of 700 students from the Middle East to study in the United States next year, attendees of the conference were sharply dissatisfied with the government’s action thus far to improve U.S.-Muslim world relations.
In addition, Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, emphatically addressed her concerns to great applause, criticizing the U.S. government’s role in allowing gross human rights violations to occur in Israel and calling for the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay. “I was pleased to see that we had Sarah Leah Whitson from Human Rights Watch, for instance, on the same panel as Sasha Mehra from the State Department. This was a great step forward in bringing together very different voices, yet on one panel discussion,” expressed Sabahat F. Adil. Furthermore, the diversity of the first panel also sparked provocative discussions during the workshop exercise, when participants were divided by regional interest. The participants in the New York City conference room, for example, engaged in spirited debate and discussion with regard to the lack of governmental involvement in the relationship building process between U.S.-Muslim communities and other parts of the world, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as potential strategies for its resolution.
Speakers on the second panel, which addressed the topic of the media’s role in improving U.S.-Muslim world relations, focused on the utmost necessity for American journalists to immerse themselves into the culture and perspective of the very people they are reporting about when covering foreign issues. Joe Lauria, U.N. Correspondent for the Boston Globe and an Investigative Reporter for the Sunday Times of London, emphasized the notion of cultural encapsulation, noting, “It will be hard, but it is absolutely necessary.” The downfall of the American press, he noted, was the minute CNN aired the launch of the first cruise missile heading towards Iraq with a reporter commenting, “Welcome to Shock and Awe.”
While Rev. Raewynne J. Whiteley, author of “Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching The U2 Catalog,” discussed the recent influence of pop culture on daily life and the rise of politically charged music, Laura Bagnetto, Correspondent for the Saudi Press Agency, stressed the need to understand target audiences in order to bridge gaps in communication. Much of the discussion relating to the media’s role and influence in shaping political affairs and relations was directed at the lack of objectivity and integrity in the American press, while attendees were urged to read international newspapers before formulating opinions on world issues. On objective reporting, Masood Haider, President of the U.N. Correspondents’ Association and a U.N. Correspondent for the Daily Dawn, said, “The public has yet to absorb the fact that the individuals we [the United States] are targeting were originally funded by our own government.” Another panelist suggested journalists should take an oath to an ethical accord, similar to physicians, in order to promote objectivity while separating fact from opinion when covering domestic and international affairs. Moreover, while the panel supported the rise of alternative media including independent newspapers and blogs, the use of critical thinking was equally emphasized in order to gauge biases and identify masked messages.
Though the second panel was informative and sparked discussion, the speakers focused on describing the biases of the American press, while suggesting little in terms of strategies to harness the media’s influence in improving U.S.-Muslim world relations. Instead, much of the emphasis was on criticizing the media conglomerates and the lack of true journalistic objectivity in both domestic and international reporting. However, when interviewed, participant Sukaina Rajani noted, “The second panel genuinely brought to light the notion that politics and media are intricately connected to one another, and thus because of this, there is no real way to decipher the media at face value.”
Overall, the Summit clearly brought together a diverse group of students and professionals who eagerly networked with one another throughout the day while posing thought-provoking questions towards panelists—a powerful sign of concern for the issues at hand. “I learned about the true principles of Islam, and I will certainly spread my new knowledge to others,” said Tyler Huston, an International Business major in attendance. The array of perspectives showcased throughout both panel discussions allowed for a more diverse foundation for the participants to consult when tackling the host of issues that arose over the course of the one-day conference. "Being in the Faculty of Education, I have now been reassured that my career ambitions lie within the global platform of international education and policy," said Jill Metcalfe, one of the select few Canadian students, like myself, in attendance. The Summit successfully and efficiently fostered awareness amongst students and professionals while engaging them in the complexities surrounding U.S.-Muslim world relations. In addition, participants were exposed to the connection between international relations and common causes, issues of governmental roles and civil responsibility, and the urgent necessity of objective journalism in the American press. This breadth of exposure resulted in a compelling program, which inspired many participants to want to pursue these issues in greater depth.