Humility and pragmatism can bridge the cross-cultural divide

The UAE's young generation has vision and optimism that may be able to heal the divisions of the past.

This month I returned to the UAE to teach a short-term course at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus, examining the roots of the East-West divide and exploring ways of bridging the chasm. We studied the knowledge gap that has separated the two worlds and the myths and negative stereotypes that have been substituted for real knowledge.

Extensive polling data have detailed the lack of information and the depth of mistrust between different peoples. As a result of these misunderstandings, policy blunders have deepened the divide.

Many of the students were able to apply these lessons to their own situations. Whether from Turkey, Moldova, Hungary, Trinidad-Tobago, Canada or Pakistan, students were able to share observations and shed light on the role that stereotypes have played.

At the end of the course, the students formulated their own recommendations on bridging the East-West divide. They began by noting the deep gap that separates the Arab world and the West. "Stereotypes," they noted, "have spread and taken root, violence has taken lives on both sides, and war has created deeper wounds than can be quickly healed."

Leaders and citizens both need to acknowledge that this divide exists but also understand that it "does not refer to fundamental differences between people in values, ideas, and culture. Instead, it consists of the misunderstandings and prejudices that prevent us from appreciating our differences".

On closer scrutiny, these students argued, as a result of trade, colonisation, migration, globalisation and travel, we discover a shared historical narrative of interdependency. This understanding can and must be broadened through cultural programmes and exchange.

It is important, they observed, that a "clear distinction ... be made between government policies and people's attitudes. Emphasis should be put on the daily lives of individuals in both societies".

Education is vital to creating this deeper awareness - education, not as a means to an end, but as a continuously developing process. Another path, they noted, to promoting deeper understanding would be the responsible use of social media, which can foster global interaction, giving individuals direct access to a broader audience.

For progress to be made, however, there must first be humility and the "understanding that we cannot be right if we cannot be wrong ... we all aspire for a better future, but change cannot be built without a realistic understanding of our past".

There are unacceptable efforts to "brand individuals within each society who acknowledge shortcomings … of being 'traitors' or 'apologists' ... Our policy will be stronger and our relations better if we can be vulnerable and show empathy towards each other by recognising our own shortcomings".

Finally, the students posited that it was important to approach this enterprise with "grounded ambitions". They recalled that in the now-famous speech in Cairo: "President Barack Obama established a new standard for American awareness of the complexities and realities of US-Arab relations.

"But this understanding did not reflect the intricacies of the domestic politics and opinions within the United States, and ultimately would become a point of disillusionment." It is important that leaders separate what is "pragmatic from what is idealistic" and not propose more than they can actually deliver.

In his book, The Way We'll Be my brother John Zogby describes young people from 18 to 29 as the "First Globals", noting that they are "the most outward looking and accepting generation in history". I marvel at this generation's optimism, vision and their instinctive sense of collaboration. And I feel confident that they might be the ones to heal the divisions that they have inherited from previous generations.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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