Muslim Students Question Foreign Policy, With U.S. Assent

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 16, 2004 3 min read
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Participants in a new U.S. government-financed exchange program for youths from the Muslim world jumped at the chance last week to question a U.S. Department of State official about foreign policy and American culture during a visit to the nation’s capital.

In a 50-minute meeting, Patricia Harrison, the department’s assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs, faced probing questions about the U.S. news media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the role of women in the United States and in Middle Eastern societies.

The 63 visiting youths were part of a group of 160 students from the Middle East and Pakistan who spent the recently completed school year living with American families and attending U.S. high schools. They also met last week with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., who promoted the exchange program, at a reception on Capitol Hill.

They are the first group to take part in the $10 million program set up by the State Department, called Partnerships for Learning: Youth Exchange and Study. The department’s Web site says the program directly supports the nation’s war on terrorism. Among its stated goals are cultivating a dialogue with moderates in Muslim countries and broadening Americans’ understanding of predominantly Islamic countries.

At last week’s meeting, Ms. Harrison stated the purpose of the program in her own words, after a Kuwaiti student asked what the U.S. government “gets” from the program: “What we get, we hope, is a relationship that is sustainable despite bad headlines in your country or our country,” she answered. “The hidden agenda is that maybe we can all be agents of peace.”

American Policies

The students’ questions pointed to some of the challenges to a more peaceful relationship between the United States and some Middle Eastern countries.

Student Eilina Al- Hakimi is greeted by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, right, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy greets other Muslim students.
Student Eilina Al-Hakimi is greeted by Sen. Richard G. Lugar, right, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy greets other Muslim students participating in an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The program has brought 160 Muslim high schoolers from around the world to attend U.S. schools.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

“As part of the U.S. government that daily discusses putting sanctions on other countries, taking over countries, and turning refugees back, how do you feel about us?” Sleiman Sleiman, a 16-year-old from Lebanon, who spent the school year in Toledo, Ohio, asked.

“I don’t agree with your premise,” replied Ms. Harrison. But, she added, “I feel good about each one of you.”

She noted that some foreigners will say they like the American people but don’t like the country’s policies. The two, in fact, go hand in hand, she maintained, because the American people elect the policymakers.

In addition, Ms. Harrison told the students, “I hope that you will be able to resist that radical song of extremism that calls you to blow up your life.”

Some of the students’ questions showed they had already reflected on their experiences in the United States.

Taimur Khan, 16, from Pakistan, who spent the school year in Columbia, S.C., said he wished the U.S. government would do something to control and improve the news media. “Why doesn’t the government do something?” he said.

Ms. Harrison defended a free press as a tenet of democracy.

Israelis and Palestinians

Ms. Harrison and the teenagers had a passionate exchange about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Samy Barmout, a 16-year-old Palestinian, asked Ms. Harrison what she thought was the solution to the long-standing strife.

She noted that President Bush has gone on the record saying there should be a Palestinian state.

“Where—in Gaza?” the boy shot back.

Ms. Harrison stressed the need for dialogue to continue between the Israelis and Palestinians. Then she posed a question of her own: “If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved, would that end terrorism around the world?” Her answer: “I don’t think so.”

But Eilina Al-Hakimi, a Yemeni girl, 16, who spent the school year in York, Pa., gave a different answer.

In Yemen, she explained, she and other Arabs see daily media reports of Palestinians being killed, and they are aware of U.S. support for Israel. “No one has anything against Americans—except [the issue of] Palestine,” she argued. “This problem is playing a big role. If this problem is solved, the whole opinion will change.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Muslim Students Question Foreign Policy, With U.S. Assent


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