Young Americans and Egyptians talk, but don't see eye to eye

From jihad to occupation – East and West define the basic terms of the Middle East debate differently.

Over the weekend in Cairo, young Egyptian and American students and professionals came together in a series of meetings intended to bridge differences between the two cultures and countries. They were looking for common ground between Arab and American, searching for solutions to issues that dominate the discussion in both countries.

I was invited to attend the meetings by a friend, Rashad Mahmood of the Project on Middle East Democracy, who helped organize the three days of talks that focused on US democracy initiatives in the Middle East, the invasion of Iraq, and what the democracy advocates – both in Egypt and in America – should be doing about all of it now.

But while the gatherings were a chance for Americans and Egyptians to hear each other out on the most pressing issues in the region, and indeed for America, what I saw was a testament to the wide gulf that remains between East and West, especially when it comes to defining the basics of the debate: resistance, occupation, and terrorism.

At points, the Americans and Egyptians grew testy with one another. Many of the Americans felt ganged up on over US policies that they're not responsible for (feeding this was the fact was that Egyptian participants outnumbered Americans). Many of the Egyptians complained that basic cultural facts – the role that Islam plays across the spectrum here or the widespread anger over the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – weren't grasped by the Americans.

"It's like they can't see where were coming from at all," said one young Egyptian woman, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo.

A frustrated American woman said, "I feel like the cultural differences are just too wide."

As for me, I'm not convinced that the problems stemmed from diametrically opposed world views, but rather a disagreement over which side was indeed "right."

It's a lot like baseball, in a way. Just as die-hard Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans are on opposite sides of the Sox's last World Series victory (Was it an eternal triumph or a tragedy?), nevertheless they both love the game.

At this gathering, almost of all of the participants agreed that the use of force would be warranted for a just cause, but they differed on what that just cause would be.

It reminded me of a party in Iraq a few years ago that was held by members of a private security company, most of whom used to belong to elite US military units.

The topic of gun control came up in conversation. One of the security contractors had been helping to secure convoys of supplies running through the sniper allies around US bases. Almost every day he ran a gauntlet of peril – potshots from unseen enemies and the strain of wondering if every dead cat on the side of the road was hiding a bomb.

He defended the right to bear arms in the US and said that if America was invaded and the government capitulated, his personal weapons would be put to use in the service of liberty.

"I'd fight until I was killed, then my wife would fight until she was killed, and, then, I hope my son would pick up his rifle and fight too,'' he said. "That's what it means to be a patriot."

That's not too different an attitude from the men trying to kill him, I suggested. He looked at me as if I was crazy. "They're not fighting for anything. They're just terrorists."

I told this story to some Egyptian students during a break at the conference. They had been venting their frustration over the cultural gulf on display at the gathering. "Exactly," said one. "There's no common ground there at all; He doesn't understand they're fighting for their homeland."

Many of the problems were predictable. Fadel Soliman, a Koran scholar, started out by condemning the 9/11 attacks and calling them un-Islamic. But he had some of his US audience up in arms when he said jihad was obligatory for all Muslims, and said specifically that fighting and killing American soldiers in Iraq is required.

One young American stood up and said he'd had friends killed in Iraq and that he couldn't countenance the notion that all American soldiers are fair game.

But his Egyptian listeners hardly batted an eye.

"They would support fighting occupiers in their country, wouldn't they?" asked Mohammed Orabi, an Egyptian student. "To them jihad means fighting, but to Muslims jihad means any kind of struggle against injustice or to be a better person."

The crisis between Israelis and Palestinians was a constant backdrop to discussion. American participants found it hard to understand local support for the Islamic militant group Hamas, which conducts operations against Israeli soldiers as well as civilians.

Yes, killing civilians is wrong, but Israel kills civilians, too, said an Egyptian.

An American woman responded that Israel doesn't do so intentionally and Hamas does.

Well, said a chorus of Egyptians, it certainly looks as if Israel tries to kill civilians to us.

Such debate prevented an ambitious goal of the gathering: a joint condemnation of terrorism at the end of the conference. In the end, there was no common ground on how to define terrorism.

The conference did end with a series of agreement to work on more such programs and efforts from both sides to understand the complexities at work in the other's society.

Organizer Rashad said that some of the tense moments at the beginning of the conference "acted as a confirmation of the stereotypes they held going in," particularly for some of the Americans.

But, he said, as the conference wound down both sides got a chance to socialize together and build relationships, which is the real value of such efforts. "When they were touring together, it was really inspiring to me that the people who were yelling at each other about the definition of terrorism the day before were going to the pyramids and taking goofy pictures of each other," he said.

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