Experts critique U.S.-Islamic relations

    Students, experts and members of the community gathered Oct. 19 at UCSD to discuss the state of relations between the Muslim world and the United States, including such topics as media biases, government policies and common misconceptions about Islam.

    “[The goal was to] build understanding that can both protect us and benefit the world,” said Americans for Informed Democracy Executive Director Seth Green, whose organization sponsored the event.

    The meeting was part of a larger “Hope not Hate” discussion series, which began after the independent commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks called for greater understanding between the United States and Muslims.

    The meeting centered on a panel of experts, including UCSD political science professor Miles Kahler, San Diego State political science professor Dipak Gupta, Grossmont College sociology professor Bashir Idwi, and writer-lecturer on Middle East affairs and former Director General of the Ministry of Economy of Iran’s pre-Ayatollah government Kam Zarrabi. Alison St. Johns of National Public Radio served as moderator.

    After St. Johns introduced the panelists, they gave opening statements aimed at clarifying common misconceptions about Islam.

    “[We need to] emphasize the diversity of the Muslim world,” Kahler said. “Too often the Muslim world is conflated with the Middle East. In fact, the Muslim world is vast.”

    Gupta discussed the notion of stereotypes.

    “It is often that we hear that Islamic nations breed terrorists, but if we really look at the world of terrorism, we are at the fourth wave,” Gupta said, referring to specific acts of terrorism resulting from conflicts that had nothing to do with Islam.

    Idwi took a more aggressive stance, criticizing former European imperial powers and comparing their actions to current U.S. policies. He also emphasized the importance of open forums of discussion.

    “A democracy cannot function in an atmosphere of fear,” Idwi said. “We cannot afford to be silent.”

    After the panelists’ opening statements, audience members asked questions and heard speeches by two 12-year-old refugees — an Afghani and a Kurdish Iraqi — and a local Palestinian activist. The audience participation ranged from general comments to questions directed at specific panel members.

    “I thought it was very informative,” John Muir College sophomore Reen Beilony said. “I think it provided an opportunity for us to hear opinions that usually we don’t [hear] from the mainstream media.”

    Idwi agreed and said that he is “very optimistic” about the possibility of such town hall discussions affecting general opinion.

    Zarrabi said he was more doubtful about the outcome of the event.

    “I hate to say this, but [the audience] already know[s] what we have to say,” Zarrabi said. “I’m not holding my breath for great changes because of [the meeting].”

    Both audience members and panelists said that the event was important to maintaining an environment of respect and understanding both at UCSD and in a broader setting.

    “[It is] so critical that we … have some kind of a space for a conversation, for a dialogue,” Idwi said. “[Muslims] are not really alien to this place. … They are your classmates, they are your neighbors, they are your co-workers, they are your colleagues, they are part and parcel of this landscape we call the U.S.”

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