Vali Nasr: What can Americans do to better understand the Middle East?

Question: What can Americans do to better understand the Middle East?

Vali Nasr: Well I think actually Americans can understand Middle Easterners much more than they think.

Europeans don’t believe in religion in that sense. Religion is not a big part of European politics. It’s a big part of American politics. I think we’ve come in the past years to try to explain everything through Islam too much. Islam does matter, but so does Christianity in America.

But you cannot explain everything in America – even in the South, even among religious groups – by just a religious explanation. You definitely cannot say, “Well that’s what the Bible says.” Or, “The Bible makes them that way.”

It is too much, I think, in public discussion in America; a deliberate lack of sophistication in trying to understand and analyze the Muslim world; trying to reduce everything into the language of religion; trying to say well everything is about religion.

And I think that’s an imbalance that hurts us, because it’s very easy to gloss over real issues; and then you end up in these culture explanations that to all of us appear to be unbridgeable. And then it makes Americans basically to throw up their arms and say, “We just don’t get it. We don’t understand.” But I think they do.

And it’s the same problem in the Muslim world. I think Muslims would understand Americans a lot better if they didn’t also look through a cultural, civilization lens; and they looked at Americans and American policy in terms of interest and aspiration that also drives them all the time.

When you talk about dialogue, it’s not really about, “Let me understand your religion and you should understand mine. I pray five times a day, you go to church, but we both believe in the same God.” That’s not the useful dialogue. Dialogue really means trying to understand the other sides interests and behaviors in terms of how you would have operated in a political arena as an individual.

Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007

"I think actually Americans can understand Middle Easterners much more than they think."

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