Understanding past could help restore U.S.-Arab ties

Ussama Makdisi in the Houston Chronicle:

Ussamamakdisi As the bloody events of last month have demonstrated, the Arab-Israeli conflict constantly upstages and undermines even the best-intentioned American diplomacy in the Arab world. The quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq and the tension between the United States and Iran do not help.

But another important reason for the lack of progress is an evident tin ear in this country when it comes to listening to Arabs — and to a domestic political and cultural landscape that stereotypes them as a people without a meaningful history. The success this spring of extremists on the Texas State Board of Education in blaming “Arab rejection of the state of Israel,” “Palestinian terrorism” and “radical Islamic fundamentalism” rather than objectively studying the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict is only the most recent example of a bleak outlook that promotes fear rather than engagement with others.

The perverse irony of where we are today is that a century ago Arabs had a largely positive view of the United States. Most of us are unaware that throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, many Christian and Muslim Arabs were inspired by America. American missionaries were the primary catalysts for this early perception. In 1820 they set out to convert the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, but it was only when these evangelicals relinquished their religious fantasies in favor of establishing now legendary institutions of higher education across the Middle East that they had a decisive cultural impact on the Arab world.

Arabs appreciated this adaptation, just as they appreciated the lack of U.S. imperialism in the region, the possibilities afforded by emigration to the United States, and Wilsonian principles of self-determination.

The point of knowing this history is not to indulge in romanticism or in nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, it is to lay the basis for a genuine, historically informed dialogue between Americans and Arabs.

More here. [Thanks to Najla Said.]