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July 2, 2010, Makdisi Op-Ed


July 2, 2010, 8:43PM

Understanding past could help restore U.S.-Arab ties

A year after Barak Obama's Cairo speech, the dialogue between the Arab world and America is nowhere to be seen or heard. As the bloody events of last month have demonstrated, the Arab-Israeli conflict constantly upstages and undermines even the best-intentioned American diplomacy in the Arab world. The quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq and the tension between the United States and Iran do not help.

But another important reason for the lack of progress is an evident tin ear in this country when it comes to listening to Arabs — and to a domestic political and cultural landscape that stereotypes them as a people without a meaningful history. The success this spring of extremists on the Texas State Board of Education in blaming "Arab rejection of the state of Israel," "Palestinian terrorism" and "radical Islamic fundamentalism" rather than objectively studying the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict is only the most recent example of a bleak outlook that promotes fear rather than engagement with others.

The perverse irony of where we are today is that a century ago Arabs had a largely positive view of the United States. Most of us are unaware that throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, many Christian and Muslim Arabs were inspired by America. American missionaries were the primary catalysts for this early perception. In 1820 they set out to convert the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, but it was only when these evangelicals relinquished their religious fantasies in favor of establishing now legendary institutions of higher education across the Middle East that they had a decisive cultural impact on the Arab world.

Arabs appreciated this adaptation, just as they appreciated the lack of U.S. imperialism in the region, the possibilities afforded by emigration to the United States, and Wilsonian principles of self-determination.

The point of knowing this history is not to indulge in romanticism or in nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, it is to lay the basis for a genuine, historically informed dialogue between Americans and Arabs. It is also to discover the choices made by both Americans and Arabs that transformed this positive history into the fraught relationship that today ensnares both sides. Any honest recounting of this history will inevitably bring up the difficult subject of the creation of Israel in 1948 at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs.

That is when U.S.-Arab relations began to unravel. Pressured by domestic Zionist groups intent on realizing their dream of a Jewish state, and by a post-war sympathy for the plight of European Jews, the U.S. broke with the Arab world by supporting the creation of Israel. In so doing, it lost the capital built up by over a century of educational and philanthropic missionary work. Despite repeated warnings at the time from Christian and Muslim Arabs, as well as the pleadings of many Americans who lived in the Arab world, the U.S. transformed, virtually overnight, an Arab faith in the United States as a paragon of anti-imperialism into disillusionment and anger.

This is because Israel's creation as a Jewish state has never been simply about ending European anti-Semitism: It has also been about displacing the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. At a moment when most of the rest of the world, including parts of the Arab world itself, were on the cusp of independence, Arab Palestinians were made stateless. The positive trajectory of U.S.-Arab relations suddenly became bitterly negative.

Understanding, rather than shying away from, this pivotal moment and its far-reaching consequences is not the same thing as wishing to undo what has been done, or to dwell self-indulgently on the past. What it does mean is recognizing how Arabs, Israelis and America have been, and remain, bound together in a fateful triangle. As President Obama said a year ago, the denial of the Holocaust or a history of anti-Semitism must end. But so too must a prevailing denial of just how important the traumatic loss of Palestine has been to Arabs and how great an injustice it represented to them. A history of Western anti-Semitism bled into a history of Arab dispossession.

Grasping this tragedy, and the obscured history of positive U.S.-Arab relations that it overshadowed, will not provide a political solution to the problems that currently plague U.S.-Arab relations. But it can provide a basis for rational, grounded optimism. In comprehending history, we can begin the long, sometimes uncomfortable and arduous path of mutual understanding, and just as important, take a decisive step away from the language of demonization and endless recrimination.

Makdisi is a professor of history at Rice University. He is the author of "Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001."