After having spent two years studying in the United States in 1950, Sayyid Qutb, leading Islamic theologian of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who shaped the ideas of Islamists and terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, wrote an article entitled "The America That I Have Seen". In it he criticized the individual freedoms he had seen exercised, he was appalled at having seen unmarried men and women dancing together, losing themselves in lust, while the band played a revolting song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” He returned to Egypt convinced that the America is evil that had to be stopped. This came to be known as “Sayyid Qutb Syndrome” that seems to be experiencing its revival 60 years later.
When we think of the American culture we primarily think of the culture of the United States or the ethnic melting pot that the US is. The term American has, first and foremost, a nationalist connotation not the geographic one, and refers to the people who live in the US. Dictionary defines culture, among other meanings, as “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or a group“. Culture is a product of human work and thought-it is our traditions, our language, and our cuisine. It is what our grandma taught us, the way we live, sing and dance, it is the stuff the legends are made of, the stories we tell our children, the way we try to refine, enrich our attitudes and goals through education, travel and contacts with other cultures.
On Monday, 8 November 2010, the International Communication Program of American University’s School of International Service, with sponsorship from the MountainRunner Institute and the Public Diplomacy Council, will host a 1-day conference to consider the extent to which, and how, cultural diplomacy might be a “listening project.”
How should the United States use culture both to communicate and listen to other nations? The 2010 Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum will feature the political and cultural leaders who are now shaping the policies and practices of cultural diplomacy in the public and private sectors.
Keynote Speaker: Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Secretary of State (1997 – 2001)
Other speakers include:
The Honorable John Brademas, President Emeritus, New York University Elizabeth Diller, Architect Eric Fischl, Painter Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (invited) Chairman Jim Leach, National Endowment for the Humanities Congressman Jim Moran, U.S. House of Representatives Dr. Azar Nafisi, Author of Reading Lolita in Tehran His Excellency Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican Ambassador to the United States His Excellency Sameh Shoukry, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States
In Conversations Moderated by: Michael Dirda, Joseph Duffey, Dana Gioia, Frank Hodsoll, Philip Kennicott, Dorothy Kosinski, Eric Motley, and Cynthia Schneider.
Lunch will be served in the Phillips Collection courtyard.
Too little is known in the US about the history of Afghanistan. History is something Americans tend to ignore, often to our detriment. We forget our history and ignore the history of others. Precedence is, in the American mind, reserved only for the law and not to the shaping perceptions or forming public opinion. This is a defect in our approach to global affairs. Such is the case with Afghanistan, where we failed to grasp (and ignored sage advice on) the impact of history on modern events.
Enter The Great Game: Afghanistan, an epic 3-part play (nine hours total) from the UK’s Tricycle Theatre, which explores the “culture and history of Afghanistan since Western involvement in 1842 to the present day.” This play begins its US tour in Washington, DC, next month. It then goes to Minneapolis, San Francisco, and New York. (Why no Los Angeles date? SF does not count.) Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the US tour is sponsored by the British Council in an example of cultural diplomacy.
In a recent Huffington Post article, 17-year old Maad Sharaf shares his thoughts about how a year abroad in the United States through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program has changed his life. Originally from Aden in the Republic of Yemen, Sharaf came to Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where he quickly learned that the image he had gotten about the United States, based mainly on media coverage in Yemen, did not correspond to reality:
“I thought America was all about huge buildings, exciting places, drunken people everywhere and going to war with every country. That was what we saw every day on television and in American movies. Unfortunately, we never saw the nice things about it or the very respectful people.”
Sharaf also had to learn that many Americans had negative images of Yemen and the Muslim world in general that they, too, ascribed to the media. When realizing this, he felt he had to become active:
“It was then that I decided I was responsible for teaching the American people in my community who we (Muslims) are as real people, and showing them that we are not the bad people they see in the news. I felt like I was not only representing Yemen, but also the Middle East and all the Islamic countries in the world.”
As Sharaf explains, he never got over the culture shock entirely but nevertheless considers his travel to the U.S. to have changed his life for the better. He discovered “that the best way to reflect a good image of your country, your family and your religion to people who don’t have any idea about where you are coming from is to be who you really are, wherever you are.”
Earlier this year, the British Council co-hosted an event in Brussels with Security Defence Agenda and NATO to discuss how “cultural” projects facilitate dialogue between groups, play a part in preventing conflict, healing post-conflict wounds, and potentially avoid conflicts based on misunderstand or mistrust. The video below are the highlights from this conference that I attended. It includes a post-event interview with British Council Chief Executive Martin Davidson.
I strongly recommend it to those interested in creating and supporting culture-based engagement pathways that to some may be “alternative” but are ultimately fundamental. One cannot hope to successfully engage in a struggle of minds and wills if one does not understand or empower the actors or their solutions to their circumstances.
"This is the most extraordinary place I have ever seen," exclaimed Sid Ganis, film producer and past President of the Academy of Motion Pictures, about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern day reincarnation of the famous Library of Alexandria. Ganis was in Alexandria to participate in a conference organized by the Library commemorating the one year anniversary of President Obama’s Cairo speech. The brainchild of the Bibliotheca’s founding Director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture Towards Enhanced US-Muslim Countries Collaborations, aimed to focus on concrete projects and initiatives in those three areas, and not on divisive political issues such the Israeli-Palestine conflict and Iraq.
In a July 2010 issue of Layalina Productions’ Perspectives, British Council officer Martin Rose argues for the West, particularly Europe, to be more “culturally literate” and refurbish its approach to cultural relations. Rose discusses the social and cultural marginalization of immigrant minorities in Europe, who recently have been lumped into the category of “Muslims” to the detriment of their national identities. He argues the need for Europe to be more open-minded and accepting of the “huge multiplicity of rivers that flow into our sea.” Urging non-Muslim Europeans to break the “Us vs. Them” mentality when approaching cultural differences, Rose advocates building trust, understanding and personal relationships to “live well in the 21st century and beyond.”
Rose also says:
To focus myopically on our own story as we are used to hearing it told is childish, a yearning for the warm security of the nursery.
Our inability to construct a larger Us is damaging and deforming: by its very nature it renders impossible a subtle, nuanced and relatively objective understanding of human culture and human society.
USA just won its group in the World Cup! Despite more bad referring! USA advances to the next round to play a team to be determined later this morning. Matt Ygelsias unbelievably jokes this is a result of the “failure of Obama public diplomacy” soon before Twitter’s fail whale appears.
Right, and England advances from Group C as well.
In other news:
General McChrystal and his staff ironically fail to grasp true and full nature of the information war they are in as they roll their stones into new careers (excluding the oft-repeated highlights, the Rolling Stone article isn’t bad).
Psychological Operations gets a necessary name change to Military Information (or possibly Military Information Support… but not Military Information Support Operations as I tweeted on Monday). Perhaps now we can have the necessary shift in Public Affairs to take on some of the proactive and preactive tactics, techniques, and procedures of Military Information Support (MIS) / PSYOP that are required in today’s environment.
And Ann Stock is confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs while the nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors are not.
Posting will remain sporadic as I am still in Hawaii. Next week I’ll be at the European IO Conference presenting on Now Media with attention on Wikileaks. The following week I’ll be in DC to conduct a seminar on Now Media with presentations from Duncan MacInnes, acting Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs (just announced: 2010 Democracy Video Challenge winners), Adam Pearson, and others.