"America is betraying the values it taught us!" This phrase, uttered by one of my Arab friends from the American University of Beirut, echoed my feelings as I traveled around the Middle East visiting five classmates on the 50th anniversary of our meeting as students at AUB.
I had visited most of these friends over the years, but this time was different. My government had waged a preemptive war against an Arab country. I felt embarrassed for my country and concern that this war would undermine the work of AUB and other American educational institutions abroad which have been an important east-west bridge for decades.
"AUB taught us the importance of individual free speech -- innocence until proven guilty," said my roommate Naziha, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim who had studied in an American missionary-founded secondary school before going to AUB. "This is what makes me sad about the U.S. now." She was also sad about what was happening in the Islamic world. "It is so clear in Islam. You don't start a war against innocents." But the principles she had learned in her American-founded educational institutions had made her believe the U.S. was somehow different. "The U.S. cannot be the most powerful and the least just. We have always thought of America as just."
These feelings were repeated by my Palestinian Protestant friend Widad in Amman, Jordan. "We always saw the British as bad and the Americans as good -- now Iraq has changed everything." I had visited Widad and her parents in Bethlehem for Christmas when we were AUB classmates in 1954. Only six years earlier the first of many Arab-Israeli wars had been fought over the partitioning of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. Behind Widad's statement lay a longer story. The Arab image of America as a just power went back to the end of World War I, when President Wilson proposed self-determination for the Arab lands that had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, they were carved up by the British and French and controlled as colonies until the end of World War II. Arab disenchantment with America began in 1948 when President Truman supported the partitioning of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel on land that the Palestinians considered to be theirs. The festering of this problem over the last half-century has been one of the motivating forces behind the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorist activities.
While my five classmates and I have all experienced personal tragedy, and the upheavals in the Middle East and war have ravaged the area, AUB and other American-founded educational institutions have survived and are at this moment strong and growing in number. They are a repository of the good qualities of America that many Arabs still wish to make part of their own society. When I lamented to one of my friends that we would have another term with President Bush, she said enviously, "But in another four years you can elect a new president."
The venerable American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo, founded in 1866 and 1919 respectively, have been joined by a host of new American universities throughout the Arab world. While of uneven quality and promise, and sometimes more business ventures than academic undertakings, these institutions demonstrate that there is a contagious desire for "American" education.
The last stop on my trip was Kuwait, where I am a trustee of their new American University, a private university which opened in September with 500 students. Their mission is to become a strong liberal arts institution in the American tradition of open-mindedness and inquisitive thinking and to create global citizens.
Chatting with students in the Starbucks coffee shop on campus, and hearing their enthusiasm for then new school was a reassuring finale to my journey. There is still a residue of respect for American ideals-if not for our foreign policy.
(Editor's note: Ann Kerr is author of two books about her life in the Middle East and is coordinator of the Fulbright Visiting Scholars program for Southern California at UCLA. )
Originally appeared in the Palisadian-Post, January 20, 2005
Published: Wednesday, March 02, 2005
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