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Islam and the West not so different

Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in London on May 24, 2010. (Max Nash/AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Islamophobia in America has recently seen a sharp upsurge.

After Sept. 11, 2001, America, for the most part, did not allow itself to resort to fear of Islam and seemed to collectively focus on the attacks as a criminal act by terrorists. It was not seen as an expression of Islam, but a perversion of the faith, and U.S. President George W. Bush related that sentiment from the White House. But lately, many interfaith observers feel the tone is changing in America and Islamophobia is suddenly on the rise.

The heated debates over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, along with a spate of domestic terror attempts, have exacerbated feelings of fear and anger that were already inflamed by the climate of economic uncertainty.

Historically, hard economic times often fan fears and suspicions of "enemies from within." The rhetoric of this new wave of intolerance has been more extreme than any similar expressions that came in the wake of Sept. 11. Now, instead of just labeling Arab Muslims as terrorists and enemies of America, the proponents of Islamophobia are denouncing Islam itself, and often speaking of not just a "clash of civilizations," but an imminent war between the Arab world and the West.

The underlying assumption is that there are irreconcilable differences between the two civilizations, differences that can only be resolved through violent conflict. You don't need to listen to talk radio in America or tune in to Glenn Beck for very long to get this sense of Islam as the enemy.

That's why the Harvard Arab Weekend seemed such an important event. The program, which drew many big names in the Arab world from Jordan's Queen Noor to Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, took place Nov. 18-21 at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, and it all stood in stark contrast to the shifting mood in America. 

The annual event, now in its fourth year, painted a portrait of quite another Arab world — not the threatening and backward wasteland that we in America are accustomed to seeing on the news, but a promising new frontier, beset with challenges but nonetheless ripe for modernization and development.

Its stated theme, “Leadership in the Private, Social and Public Spheres,” set a mood of exuberant optimism about the possibilities that the emerging market of the Arab world — styled in the program as MENA (Middle East and North Africa) — might hold. Panels on education, design and public health in this vast untapped market were mostly filled to capacity.

Young Arabs studying business, law, government or medicine at Harvard eagerly lined up at the end to ask questions, many barely able to contain their enthusiasm as they stepped up to the microphone and blurted out two or three questions in the space of one.

Along with hope for progress, the event also offered its young Arab attendees opportunities for the sort of prosperity that is becoming increasingly unlikely for their American counterparts. It culminated on Sunday with a career fair, where some of the top companies in the Arab world, some of whom also helped sponsor the event, were looking to draw bright young recruits to the newest land of opportunity.

Even the setting itself seemed to promise a bright and successful future for young Arabs studying in America — the interior of the Kennedy School’s Taubman Building, with its carpeted floors, warm halogen lighting and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the Charles Hotel, looks more like a corporate conference center than an academic building. Its ambiance added yet more to the sense that the event was not about passive inquiry, but an extremely active effort to prepare young leaders for the renaissance that seemed ready to burst forth from the Arab world at any moment.

Throughout the event, the word “Islam” was uttered seldom if ever. The participants, the vast majority of whom were Muslim themselves, modeled well the worldly secularity they so firmly believe their homeland capable of. Islam was not exactly suppressed, but there was a clear effort made to keep it circumscribed, to avoid injecting it into discussions of secular issues, and to show how it too can have a place in a modern society.

Many of the women in attendance wore headscarves, but rarely were they unaccompanied by stylish jeans and high leather boots. Even the dress code of the gala dinner following Saturday’s panels was given as “Business Formal or National Dress” — any mention of religious attire was pointedly absent.

All in all, the Harvard Arab Weekend showed that many young Arabs are ready to break out of the box that both the American media and retrogressive elements of their own culture have shut them in.

It ought to serve as a loud rebuke to any American Islamophobes who will listen — far from a backward land whose rigid religion will keep it forever in the dark ages, the Arab world is already modernizing all on its own. If the region has as much potential for development as panelists and students seemed to think, it will surely not be long before the American public becomes aware that this world exist, and that at the end of the day we are all on the same side.

Nicholas Cox graduated from Princeton University in 2010 with a degree in religion.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/101124/islam-america-harvard