Forum offers ideas for U.S.-Islam relations

Four speakers offered solutions such as forgiveness, education and increased support for human rights organizations as ways to improve the United States’ relationship with the Islamic world in a forum at the Yale Law School on Tuesday.

The discussion was part of a national series of town hall meetings sponsored by the group Americans for an Informed Democracy. The Yale chapter of AID, The People Speak, Journal of Human Rights, The Families of September 11 and the Muslim Students’ Association sponsored the panel. Over 50 people attended.

Panel member Thomas Roger, who sits on the board of directors of Families of September 11, attributed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to anger that built up between the Muslim and Western worlds and “morph[ed] into a campaign of pain and terror.”

Roger, whose daughter was a flight attendant on one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, attributed the animosity between the Islamic world and the United States to religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world and discrimination against Muslims in the United States. He called on people to forgive one another.

Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations Ghazi Khankan said he does not think Islam is to blame for the attacks.

“All Islamic organizations have condemned it strongly,” he said. “Those who commit murder in the name of Islam actually betray the religion and its values of peace.”

The United States’ support of Israel in its conflict with Palestine is the “root of the problem,” Khankan said. He alluded to the saying “the friend of an enemy becomes my enemy.”

But developmental economist Isabel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world is primarily the result of economic deprivation in many Muslim countries.

The United States should increase its support for groups that work to educate women, Coleman said. Educating more women would help eliminate a “huge” gender gap present in many Muslim countries and in turn help solve the countries’ problems of underdevelopment, Coleman said.

“When you educate a man, you educate a person. When you educate a woman, you educate a community,” she said.

Human rights organizations were also a topic of discussion. Panelist Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, said groups such as hers have difficulty working in the Middle East.

“The term human rights has come to sound like a scary mantra, meaning your country is about to be invaded,” Whitson said.

When an audience member asked Khankan whether Islamic teachings can ever be compatible with current notions of human rights, Whitson argued that parts of the Koran that advocate polygamy and condemn divorce are incompatible with basic ideas about human rights.

Khankan responded that different Arab states, as well as different people, have different interpretations of the Koran.

Spurred by question from another audience member, Khankan and Roger argued on how much U.S. foreign policy causes terrorism. While Khankan said U.S. policies play a significant role in giving rise to anti-U.S. sentiment, Roger said other factors transform that sentiment into terrorism.

The forum left audience members with mixed feelings.

“I think that what it was is a perfect example of U.S.-Muslim relations,” Sophie Fenner ’07. “People are talking past each other and everyone is here with their minds made up.”

Alicyn Cooley ’05 introduces a panel of experts convened to explore solutions for improving the United States’ relationship with the Islamic world at the Law School Tuesday.
Philip Burkhard
Alicyn Cooley ’05 introduces a panel of experts convened to explore solutions for improving the United States’ relationship with the Islamic world at the Law School Tuesday.

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