“Would Osama bin Laden have ended up so anti-American if he had the chance you had, to live and study in the U.S.?” the American journalist asked me.
I gave him a long answer (sorry, it wasn’t an easy question): “Many Muslims went to America conservative and came back liberal. Yet others first became conservative, even radical, after their American experience. A few remained uninfluenced either way.
Said Qutub, the godfather of Islamic radicalism, was a romantic poet before living for a short while in Colorado, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Then and there, he wrote later, he discovered Western decadence and decided to change course and to fight U.S. influence in the Muslim world. His books influenced many generations of Muslims and led them toward confrontation with Western values and with Muslim regimes that don’t strictly adhere to Shariah.
On the other hand, most people I know, both young and old, have returned from America positively impressed. A prominent anti-U.S. leftist told me after his first visit: I discovered that America is not just a pro-Israel Congress and White House. It is also the hospitable, friendly, open and generous people.
During the cross-Atlantic flight from London to New York, my American neighbor told me all about his life and family, showed me their pictures, and discussed everything from the environment to U.S. foreign policy. We agreed and disagreed, but he never showed any anger, arrogance, stubbornness or hostility. Before we parted ways, he gave me his card, invited me home, and … presented me with a medal of honor he received in the U.S. Army.
Are all Americans like that? I didn’t live enough in the States to judge, but all the people I met from the steward on the airplane, to the passport officer, to the man in the street, were so nice to me. How could I hate a country with such lovely attitude? How could I ever hate America the country, the people and civilization? No, from now on, I’ll just hate their foreign policies.
Going to America direct from a conservative society is usually a huge culture shock. Many cannot cope, but most process the change and absorb the new lifestyle, in time. America, as an immigrant society, more than most Western nations, has the capacity of accommodating and welcoming strangers. Depending on the place you happen to visit or live in, you may get easier or harder transit experience. Young and liberal get on faster than older and conservative, but somehow, almost all manage to manage.
Back to the original question, I don’t think Osama, who briefly visited America to obtain medical treatment for his son in the 1970s, would have changed fundamentally. His stand is more political than social. His criticism is directed at U.S. foreign policy, not at American social attitudes. But knowing how friendly the average American is, I’d bet that would have made a positive impression on Osama.
Since childhood, I have been lucky enough to have known American expatriates. The kids in the nearby compound were my playmates. This allowed me to see the other not as a stranger or an enemy, but as a friend. After years of study in the U.S., the positive image was enforced. My professors, classmates and neighbors of all faiths, races and colors showed me that no matter what a person’s background may be, it is how he treats you and what ethics and values he upholds that matter.
I would imagine that for the anti-Americans of the world, life in such a liberal, friendly, and civilized environment as I was able to in Eugene, Oregon, would have made them more tolerant and friendly, and less suspicious and hostile. It would moderate their anger toward the American public, for having elected a government they despise. It would get them to understand that electing a president doesn’t necessarily mean supporting all of his foreign policies.
That is one reason I encourage our students, professionals and opinion and community leaders to have such experience and exposure.
But it defeats our best intentions and purposes to encourage studies in the States, only to then find it so difficult and humiliating to get a visa. It would very much help if we expanded Saudi-American visitor exchange programs, workshops, conferences and scholarships. We need more face-to-face, people-to-people meetings.
Only by building a direct bridge between our peoples and cultures will we get to know each other, and care for each other. Love doesn’t grow in abstention.
*Khaled Batarfi is the former managing editor of Al-Watan, an Arabic-language Kuwaiti newspaper.