In 2003, I was inundated with requests from friends to join an online social forum to attack an American blogger. He had written that Muslims were "pigs," saying that the world "should kill their women and children."
What was said on both sides was some of the most offensive vocabulary I have read online. I realized that this was going from bad to worse. So I started my online "attack" with the words "Dear Michael." I proceeded with brief comments about Islam and asked the blogger to e-mail me so we could converse like adults.
Over a series of back-and-forth e-mails, I explained to Michael the tenets of Islam, the tolerance and respect that my religion has taught me for others, and finally the beauty that I see in this world because of it.
By the third e-mail, Michael had come around. His replies were respectful and more thoughtful. I had managed to engage him rather than enrage him. Finally on April 29, 2003, I sent him an e-mail saying how proud Muslims and Arabs were of the United States' achievements in the fields of science and technology, human rights and freedom and that there was no enmity between Arabs and Muslims and the US.
In fact, of all the countries in the world, it was Morocco, an Arab and Muslim nation, that first recognized the US, in 1777.
A few hours after my last post, I received a final e-mail from Michael. He said that some of his comments were "unfair," and ended: "I no longer consider you an enemy of myself."
Going over those e-mails this past weekend, I saw the same message in the controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic center in New York; the same logic of engaging rather than enraging each other is needed. This spirit of engagement was evident in President Barack Obama's Cairo speech last year when he said that Islam was always part of America's story, and that Muslims "have fought in our wars, served in government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they have excelled in our sports arenas, they have won Nobel prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic torch."
The truth is, it is too easy to find hate and bigotry in the world. It's on television, online and in print. What is important is that we should not let this cloud our judgment about other cultures. Instead, we are better to ignore people such as this bigot in Gainesville, Florida, who threatened to burn Qurans. We should draw inspiration from the 200 American Muslims and Jews who gathered for an iftar in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a recent Ramadan night to raise money for Pakistan's flood victims.
There is so much more that unites Arabs and Muslims with the United States than divides us. The UAE is perhaps a modern microcosm of this relationship. Many Emirati students are currently enrolled in US universities, while others are doing their internships at top American enterprises including NASA.
The UAE hosts the regional offices of some of the largest US corporations as well as American universities in Sharjah, Dubai and New York University's first full-fledged international campus in Abu Dhabi. The UAE, like the US, is a federation where people from across the world moved to and settled to start their own dreams of a better life.
After the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we must remind ourselves that one of the objectives of the terrorists was to create a schism between Islam and the West. Over the past few years, many have tried to manipulate this divide. They have caricatured the Prophet Mohammed, instigated violence, preached intolerance and burnt books.
Should we allow ourselves to be carried away or should we extend our hands to each other in peace? The answer is to remind ourselves of what brings us together like those fine people in Cambridge, Massachusetts did.
Whatever misplaced sympathy a minority of Arabs and Muslims felt for extremists has all but disappeared. Their senseless violence also targets Muslims, religious, secular and moderates alike. To those who only highlight what divides us like the Iraq war, we must counter that what unites us is our common bond. In Kosovo, the United States stepped in to stop attacks against Muslims while the rest of the world stood idle.
There will always be people on the fringe of society who believe that the only impact they can leave on humanity is death and destruction. History will remember these criminals for who they are. To hasten this process, we must move forward together with love and respect and not regard those who are different from us as enemies.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government
This article first appeared in The National on September 12th 2010
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