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It is not enough to have a Just Cause
Are Members of Congress Misinformed about the Middle East?

By Adib F. Farha
Adib F. Farha is a member of Lebanon's National Audio-Visual Media Council. He contributed this commentary to The Daily Star

Some of the statements regarding regional issues advanced by certain US congressmen who visited Lebanon last week were stunning, disappointing and dismaying. Not only did they reflect the near-total ignorance of the visiting congressmen of the history, geography, background and religious beliefs of Arabs and Muslims, they also reflected the great influence of enemies of Arabs and Muslims on the opinions of American decision-makers and the poor job the countries of the region are doing to correct false perceptions regarding the core issues in the Arab world and the plethora of misconceptions regarding Islam.

Nevertheless, many Lebanese who regrettably subscribe to conspiratorial theories incorrectly assumed that the views expressed by members of the delegation either reflected the position of the American administration or otherwise represented a trial balloon floated by the said administration to test potential initiatives. Perhaps the fact that the visiting dignitaries were referred to in Arabic as a "congressional delegation" when, in fact, they were "a delegation of congressmen" had something to do with the hullabaloo. The difference in nuance is that while the wrong reference implies that the group had a mission bestowed on it by the US Congress or the US administration, the group was actually an ad hoc group of congressmen who more than likely decided each on his/her own to make the "fact-finding trip," either out of sincere intellectual curiosity or otherwise, to appear informed to their constituencies.

As a result, the visit caused a major controversy and a deluge of statements opposing the statements made therein. It also provided an opportunity for many Lebanese political leaders and political aspirants to demonstrate to officials in Damascus their readiness to defend the common cause and to condemn the said statements. But had it been a "mission" instigated by "evildoers" in the US administration, as many Lebanese assumed, or a "trial balloon," the delegation would have at least been properly briefed either by the US State Department or by its embassy in Beirut. Clearly, neither had taken place. The level of ignorance was astounding.

Some of the views expressed by certain congressmen were deplorable indeed. But it would be worthwhile, as a post-mortem analysis, for the Lebanese and other Arabs to be introspective and to understand that we also have ourselves to blame for the misconceptions that we heard from them. While bigoted Arab- and Muslim-haters work diligently to tarnish our images and to advance the Zionist point of view, Arab and Muslim diplomats address the American people and its officials with a "wooden tongue." The content of their message to the Americans, its style and its tone, appear meant more to please government officials in Syria and in Lebanon than to convince their audience of the just causes they are defending.

On the other hand, it is hard to believe (or to justify) the ignorance manifested by certain members of the visiting group on regional issues. I write this based on first-hand knowledge of what was said since I was among a group of eight Lebanese of various religious, political, and academic backgrounds who were invited by the US Embassy in Beirut to meet with the group. I would not normally write about a private dinner, but since most of discussion has already been leaked to the press, I am taking the liberty to discuss it here.

It was disgusting to hear a rather senior member of congress blame Islam for the "backwardness of the Arab and Islamic worlds." We tried to explain that, while it is true our economic and social growth is poor, it bears no causal relationship with Islam, but he remained stubbornly unconvinced. "Islam does not promote work ethics," he said. When he was corrected citing Koranic verses and historical events, he refused to budge. "Then how do you explain the impressive progress achieved by Malaysia, which is hardly a Protestant country?" we asked. "It's a fluke," he said.

"Islam does not allow women to work," he claimed. When he was told that Prophet Mohammad's wife was a trader and that the Prophet himself saw nothing wrong in working for her, he arrogantly dismissed it. "Islam does not allow women to drive," he then said. Although it was pointed out to him that with the exception of Saudi Arabia and perhaps one or two other Muslim countries Muslim women drive, that even in Saudi Arabia women were once allowed to drive, and that there is nothing in the Koran that prohibits women from working or driving, he insisted that "Islam is the problem."

When the discussion turned to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need to address the issue of Palestinian refugees, he couldn't understand why Lebanon does not simply give them Lebanese citizenship. Relevant UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian refugees' right to have a choice of returning to their homeland or being compensated for their losses were cited, but he remained adamant. Even after explaining the impossibility for a poor country like Lebanon with its limited financial, social and educational resources that would sustain the addition of several hundred thousand people to its population, our argument fell on deaf ears. The sensitive demographic and political balance did nothing to sway him either. "As long as you talk about a Palestinian right of return, there will be no end to the conflict," he exasperatingly declared. Clearly, he had been brainwashed to think of "naturalization" of Palestinian refugees in their host countries for too long to be convinced otherwise in a three-hour discussion. Similar exchanges took place regarding other timely issues but some of our "guests" were not ready to listen.

What lessons can we derive from this?

The most important lesson is that Americans in general are ill-advised about the issues of the region. But if the tragic events of 9/11 had only one lesson for Americans, it has to be that they are not immune to events in other parts of the world. It is, therefore, in their own interest to be better-informed. Otherwise, they would continue to elect ignorant representatives who play a role in the decision-making process of the world's sole superpower based on false facts. The cost to America of ill-advised decisions has also become abundantly clear after the recent events in Iraq.

The second lesson is that Arab and Muslim diplomacy is painfully ineffective. It is easy for us to sit back and blame everything on the strength of the Israeli lobby. But the question that begs to be answered is why we have not countered that lobby with one of our own. We cannot simply wash our hands from any responsibility for the misconceptions held by some Americans regarding our existential issues.

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