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Lessons in Democracy
By Townsend Hoopes, Senior Fellow

In July the C. V. Starr Center for the American Experience hosted an ambitious summer school on American values that brought 21 young Muslim students to Washington College (see story on p.18). This was the first of three such programs sponsored by the State Department this year, in a belated effort after 9/11 to reinstate cultural exchanges meant to improve the world's understanding of America. On the interpersonal, or micro, level, this experiment was a clear triumph for Washington College and a boon for a group of bright young Muslims who are likely to be among the future leaders of their own countries. On the international, or macro, level, the impact will not be known for some time. We should be hopeful, but experience warns us to be cautious.

Whatever its contradictions and failings, America represents the triumph of modernity, meaning not only technological achievement, but also freedom of speech, political dissent, democratic elections and women's rights. Most of Islam is still gathered in traditional societies where control is exercised by religious authorities who resist or are ambivalent about modernity. Developing these vital elements of human progress has brought prosperity and world dominance to America and the West; it also has created a dynamic of accelerating change which is leaving much of Islam behind, mired in stagnation, excess population and mass poverty. This vast gap in living standards inevitably creates resentment, which is exploitable by fanatics and demagogues. Ironically, however, bin Laden and other core terrorists are not interested in economic uplift for their followers. Rather they are seeking to foment hatred of America among the masses on the grounds that our political, military and cultural intrusiveness is an invasion that corrupts the deepest values of Islam.

A vital point here is that the realities of modernity (technical, social, political) are inexorable. They cannot be wished away, which means that traditional societies are faced with a crucial choice: to adjust, to adapt or to risk steady decline and perhaps ultimate disappearance. Given this daunting paradigm, the genuine enthusiasm for America shown by our 21 Muslim guests was a heartening sign. They seemed impressed with the depth of our national commitment to human freedom and individual opportunity, and the stability of our institutions, both governmental and private. Several declared that exposure to America had reinforced their determination to work for social change in their own countries. Two Pakistani women, both law students, said they planned to devote their lives to fighting for broader women's rights at home. One young man said it was his ambition to become his country's prime minister.

As a group they were progressive moderates, categorically opposed to terrorism. At the same time, they were openly critical of current U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, believing it plays into the hands of Islamic extremists. The Bush doctrine seems to them overmilitarized, insensitive to historic realities and to genuine grievances in the region.

On reflection, one might conclude that the least tangible aspects of the program were the most fruitful: namely, the personal lessons learned about intercultural differences, and similarities. A few of the differences created tension until they were eased by the remarkably open, honest discussion that characterizes student dialogue today. The easy equality between men and women in American life confronted the patriarchal tradition in countries where men direct women but also protect them. For example, the prospect of an evening at Andy's made a strong young Indian man uneasy. Why? Because the local patrons would be consuming alcohol and this might result in behavior unacceptable to the Muslim women for whose dignity and safety he felt responsible. His upbringing had taught him to doubt the possibility of a genuinely equal friendship between a man and a woman. Later, he and several others came to acknowledge that gender relations in this country are more mature than they had supposed. For their part, the Americans came to a quiet respect for these "old-fashioned" values, especially for the depth of conviction in which they are held.

The female students displayed varying degrees of ambivalence on this subject. Several seemed to want only an intellectual experience. Most however were eager to embrace all aspects of their first American experience; some admitted their mothers had told them to enjoy it to the full, for after this brief fling their lives must return to traditional restrictions.

The gravest crisis in the world today turns on the question of how to prevent a destructive confrontation between the West and the whole of Islam. If there is an answer, it lies in persuading the great majority of Muslims (totaling some 2 billion people) to choose modernity and moderation, and to reject the blind alley offered by its nihilist minority. In this context, a $200,000 State Department program aimed at explaining the basic tenets and promises of American democracy to future leaders of South Asia looks more cost effective than a $400 billion defense budget.

Townsend Hoopes, Senior Fellow at Washington College, servedasanassistanttothree Defense Secretaries and was Under Secretary of the Air Force. He has written several prize-winning books on American foreign policy.

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