Cure for US-Arab tensions: more student visas

In my holiday mail, I got a Christmas card from one of my former journalism students. It carried a photo of her gorgeous children, the proud product of an American mother and an Arab father. The parents weren't in the picture and I wondered whether it was because the Dad, an American citizen, had served in his country's military in a noble but sometimes discreet role that made it inadvisable to publicize his face.

It set me to thinking about the ways my life, and our society, have been enriched by other friends of Arab descent.

As I write, for instance, my 13-year-old son is shooting basketballs with one of his closest friends, whose family happens to be from Kuwait. Sometimes when we take the two of them on long trips, we need to stop at certain times so my son's friend can get out his prayer rug and kneel in the direction of Mecca. The father in this family was a general in the Kuwaiti Air Force during the Gulf War. The mother and children survived Iraqi occupation. Now they live in America, moving easily between Arab and American cultures. An older son was quarterback in his American high school. Older daughters are scholarship students, attired in American dress, but scrupulously observing Islamic codes.

Another good friend was the director of communications for Sudan before an oppressive government forced his departure. He is now a professor at a prestigious American university. He has written sensitively about Islam and its relationship to democracy, and about misunderstandings between Islam and the West. He talks with wry humor about the old days in Khartoum, when the rare visiting Western reporter, sometimes ill-informed and on a quick in-and-out visit, would seek him out because it was "take a Muslim to lunch" day.

Another academic friend of Egyptian origin and international stature runs a Middle East study center that attracts prominent guest lecturers from around the world to his American campus.

Such friends as these, who in their different ways are making significant contributions to better understanding between Americans and the Arab and Islamic world, are not always in agreement with every aspect of American policy. But discourse with them is healthy and civil. Their exposure to American culture, and American exposure to theirs, is mutually beneficial.

We need much more of this. One problem inhibiting it is the US security crackdown on visas, particularly for the thousands of international students who have traditionally and eagerly enrolled at US universities. The overall number of such students is down 2.4 percent this year, with graduate students down 6 percent. In part, there is a perception that America is less hospitable than before 9/11, but there are horror stories of bureaucratic delays in processing visas, and even the granting of reentry visas to students who have studied in the US for years.

American families are generous and kindly to international visitors and hundreds of thousands of them return to their countries with positive memories of American lifestyles, ideas, and principles. As Secretary of State Colin Powell once said: "I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here." Half the Jordanian cabinet, for example, was educated in the US.

More vigilant screening since 9/11 of potential terrorists is desirable and understandable. But as Harvard professor Joseph Nye wrote in The New York Times, it would be tragic if "in an effort to exclude a dangerous few, we are keeping out the helpful many."

In the past, a key part of US public diplomacy was the encouragement of thousands of journalists, artists, budding politicians, teachers, and opinion leaders to visit America for varying periods of time, to observe it and its people firsthand. Students, especially if they pursue graduate studies, spend five or six or more years living in American communities and rarely return to their homelands unchanged by that experience.

In the hidden training camps of Al Qaeda, and the angry madrassahs of the extremist Islamic world, potential new terrorists are being given a distorted and hate-filled picture of America and what it stands for.

That needs to be offset by the real picture. It is best communicated by people-to-people contacts between human beings who have a real desire to understand and appreciate each other. And we can build more enduring relationships than "take a Muslim to lunch" day.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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