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Issue Date:  October 28, 2005

Syrians lament U.S. misperceptions


Thirteen academics and peace activists traveled to Syria under the auspices of Conscience International, a private aid organization run by James Jennings, a man with talent for diplomacy and good works. We went to meet with Syrian academics to tell them that not everyone in the United States believes in a “clash of civilizations,” and that the Bush administration does not represent all Americans. We quickly learned that the Syrians already suspect this is the case. They have been watching America for some time.

From the eighth floor of the Meridian Hotel in Damascus, we looked out on a rooftop vista of this ancient city. The view is dominated by two objects: minarets and satellite dishes. The satellite dishes are ubiquitous. It is through these that information about the United States comes into the homes and offices of Syria. Add to this the fact that educated Syrians know some English or French and you soon realize that many Syrians know much more about us then we do about them. However, this situation results in more frustration than satisfaction. This is because the Syrians can observe the distortions that go into the American perception of the Syrian society without being able to do much about it.

Syrians make a distinction between people and their governments. They have faith that given a “true picture of Syria’s peaceful intentions,” the American people would never back hostile actions against them. But they see that the U.S. media is in lockstep with the Bush government line and they wonder where our free, investigative press has gone. For instance, Syrians can listen to the American government demand a number of reforms from their young president, Bashar Assad. And they tell you that they believe their government is moving in just this reformist direction, though for some perhaps not fast enough. Yet one thing that everyone agrees on is that the United States, while demanding reform, has proceeded to undercut Syrian efforts to comply with those demands. For example, when Syrians have asked U.S. consulting firms for help with educational and economic reforms, the Bush regime has effectively blocked any cooperation. Although Condoleezza Rice demands that Syria close its borders with Iraq (a project akin to closing the border between the United States and Mexico), the U.S. government refuses to give border control technology to help the Syrians accomplish this. Syrians withdrew from Lebanon as requested but are now accused, without any definitive proof, of assassinations there. Our hosts ask us what they can do, short of giving up their sovereignty, to please the U.S. government?

Of course, Syria is not a democracy and it does have human rights problems. In our meetings with President Assad and his wife, Asma, both were quite open about the government’s “emergency law” that allows it to arrest and hold persons without charge. They claimed that its application is restricted to national security issues. Americans who might wish to point fingers should remember the Patriot Act and that President Bush threatens to veto a defense appropriations bill because its clause forbidding torture would tie his hands. There are problems of corruption and cronyism in the Syrian government, again not so unfamiliar to us. There is no doubt that the Syrians still have a long way to go in terms of democratic reform. However, far from helping them, the Bush administration seems intent on making difficulties for Syrian reformers so as to maintain that country as a candidate for “regime change.” President Bush tells us that Syria is a “terrorist state.”

In the hallways of the University of Damascus, faculty and students do not attribute Middle East terrorism against the United States and its interests to any fundamental clash of values. Rather, they see it as an inevitable, albeit extreme, reaction to American policies that have consistently interfered with and damaged the lives of people throughout the Middle East. The Syrian academics are surprised when we tell them that the American people are largely ignorant of these policies.

The president of Damascus University told us that Syrians are wary of double standards and condescension. The Syrian schools have programs on human rights and promote the acceptance of cultural and ethnic differences. In terms of religious tolerance, Syria is one of the most progressive countries in the region. Syrians want peace with the Israelis and return of their land (the Golan Heights) but will not acquiesce in the denial of human rights for Palestinians. The Syrian academics wanted to know if Americans expect more from Syrians than from themselves.

Yet our presence encouraged them and in appreciation they took us to the five-star restaurants of Damascus. Dialogue came all the easier over fine food. However, as we ate and watched the whirling dervish floor show, we came to sad agreement that under President Bush diplomacy has gone to the dogs of war. None of us wanted Damascus to end up looking like Baghdad. We wondered what could be done to change perceptions and policies.

The Syrian academics said that to enhance dialogue, they would welcome more exchanges with U.S. universities. To date, what they have gotten is sanctions levied against them, denying them computer parts, radiation equipment for cancer treatment, even a timely visa for their nation’s president to visit the United Nations. “Can’t the Americans understand,” said the Syrian academics, “that U.S. policies such as the embargo will undermine our efforts at reform and increase the power of reactionary fanatics?”

The answer, of course, is that Americans do not understand this. Our satellite dishes are not ubiquitous and our language capabilities are wholly inadequate to facilitate alternative points of view. It turns out that we are much more the prisoners of local propaganda than are the Syrians.

Lawrence Davidson is a professor of history at West Chester (Pa.) University.

National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005

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