Jun 07 2002

Is the West interested in Understanding the East

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,US-Middle East

During the past weeks I attended two conferences in New York and Vienna, which were aimed at finding ways of using the media to improve dialogue and understanding. In New York, the longest running children’s television production company rounded up some of the world’s best creative people and media producers in order to see how they can improve respect and understanding. The Sesame Workshop which co produces with tens of countries and whose children’s puppets appear in over 120 countries wanted to know what can be done to improve understanding and mutual respect between the peoples of the world. In Vienna the foreign minister invited representatives from the Mediterranean basin to discuss the role of media in improving Euro-Med dialogue.

There is no doubt that the sudden flurry of high powered conferences are in part a result of the shock that the western world received after September 11, a theme that was repeated on the mouths of most speakers and facilitators. The fact that it has taken eight months for such meetings is an indication that we seem to have passed the phase, which was reflected with the words of many Americans “why do they hate us?”

Searching for answers to questions of what is needed led to a discussion about the arrogance and isolationism that peoples in the west have been moving towards until they were shocked into waking up to the rest of the world. A speaker at the New York meeting admitted that more than half of the United States senators or congressmen don’t even possess a valid passport, a statements that reflected the apathy American people and their leaders have to the world around them.

While Islam and September 11 were among the key features of the discussions, the Arab-Israeli conflict also received much attention in both meetings. In New York keynote speakers included former US peace envoy Dennis Ross and a veteran Palestinian journalist. In Vienna former UN Secretary General Butrus Butrous-Ghali was the keynote speaker and one of the sessions was entitled: CNN versus Al Jazzera.

Discussing ways of improving dialogue and understanding between peoples showed that it is next to impossible so long as violence and repression continue to be the rule of the day. I explained to those attending the New York meeting that it is useless trying to introduce values of mutual respect and understanding while one party continues to occupy and repress the other party. How can we teach children to respect the ‘other’ when the other has tanks shelling our children’s homes I explained. We can discuss such lofty goals only when our children enjoy the freedoms and independence that other children around the world enjoy.

The Vienna meeting reflected a much more sophisticated understanding of what is needed to bridge the gap between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. The senior Egyptian diplomat spoke extensively about the asymmetry between the two banks of the Mediterranean, listing economic and social differences as the main cause of this divide.

Technology was also discussed both in its reflection in the digital divide as well as in the opportunities it gives all people. The speed in which technology has moved from developers to users has in many ways evened the playing field even though only an elite group of developing countries had access to it.

In order to bring peoples closer together a number of practical ideas were discussed both in the form of content as well as in methods of delivery. From teenage television programs, to international chat sessions and interactive CD ram participants toiled as they sought ways as to how to get children and youth from around the world to better understand each other. Ironically and despite the pacifist nature of these discussions, the most popular idea for improving dialogue and breaking stereotypes was a spying game.

The idea of this game is that players win more and more points if they are able to successively infiltrate enemy territory. The deeper the player gets into the others territory the more he or she gets grilled about the history, culture and life style of the enemy. If the player reflects any hint of stereotyping of the enemy or show ignorance to the ‘enemy’s history and culture they get caught and lose the game.

While learning by playing might be a clever way of understanding the other, theological and philosophical thinkers were recalled as the needed ideological model for such an endeavor. A number of participants quoted the opposite of the golden rule. “Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to you.”

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