How America is earning respect abroad
HONOLULU — We have grown sadly used to hearing that the rest of the world, particularly the Islamic world, hates America. But here is some good news. It comes from hundreds of first-hand reports by participants in exhange programs under the American Councils for International Education. Here are samples from participants in some Islamic countries.
People from these countries who spend time in the United States under exchange programs not only prize the democratic culture they find here; more important, they typically go home bent on instilling the virtues of America in their own nations - like the teacher who exclaimed: "I was back in Turkmenistan! Back in my home country! I made up my mind to do whatever I could to make my country a better place to live" because "America inspired me and showed me what was possible."
Here are some similar examples of this good news from the predominantly Islamic region of the former Soviet Union, a crucial front in the war of ideas with autocracy and Islamic fundamentalism.
In Azerbaijan, a young woman declares, "My understanding of the meaning of life has totally changed" since she resided in the US. Surprisingly, she reports that this is partly because after experiencing America's "freedom of speech and belief and the respect for law and government ... I started to read the Koran and came to my religion and understanding of it only in the US, not in my country." At the same time, touched by "how the American people care about and help" others, she vowed to "do my best to have an open and big heart and help those who need it." Today she is a Muslim with democratic ideals who has thrown herself into the work of securing rights for children.
In Kazakhstan, numerous teachers moved by American freedoms and social equality say they are now endeavoring within their schools and among adults outside to create an "open civil society" and make their homeland "a real democratic country" like America.
In Tatarstan (a Russian Republic north of Kazakhstan), a woman struck by America's ethnic tolerance strives to foster this at home by dissuading her countrymen from quarreling over the question: "Should Tatar people support their Muslim brothers or be united with their Russian neighbors?" To achieve this end, she is creating an ambitious community-wide multicultural educational program.
In Uzbekistan, a woman returned from legal studies in the US and an internship at the UN to become an influential law professor and establish innovative courses such as "Constitutional Law" and "Women's Rights Under Islam." Another young woman returned to launch a crusade "to improve the status of women," beginning with summer camps for girls to "increase their self-esteem by teaching them their basic rights." Yet another young woman, concerned that "terrorism is threatening the peace of the world," is using her American MBA training to instigate "democratic and economic reforms" that will "create a true democratic society and build a bridge of friendship between the USA and Uzbekistan."
In Tajikistan, a young man who says he had "become stronger, active, free, and more responsible" in the US set out "to study everything related to human rights" and to serve that cause. He then joined the Republic Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law, a human rights protection organization, where he organizes legal clinics for his fellow Tajiks, reports on human rights violations in prisons, and helps a UN agency monitor Tajik laws for their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In Kyrgyzstan, a teacher says she discovered in America that "democracy is not just a beautiful word that allows everyone to do whatever one likes" but instead means "freedom, but responsibility." She adopted these three words as her motto and now teaches "what a democratic state is," while planning "a new democratic school" devoted to spreading the principles of democracy throughout "the life of the community and the country." Another Kyrgyz person, who proclaims that "the US won an ally in me" when he was an exchange student here, is acting on his commitment by coordinating a coalition of 55 "NGOs for Democratic Civil Society" and by preparing to run for parliament as a vigorous advocate of American democratic ideals.
Although these examples are few and anecdotal, they represent hundreds of people who bring us the good news from the war of ideas that America can indeed nurture democratic culture in Islamic and other developing countries without firing a shot.
It can do this by inviting to our shores, educating, and otherwise enlightening, ever more of the individuals (many of them women, as the examples here show) who will shape the democratic futures of those countries - if those countries are to have democratic futures at all.
• James Sloan Allen is the author of "Worldly Wisdom: Great Books and the Meaning(s) of Life," to be published next year.