It may be fair to predict that one day Missoula will be known as the Dayton of the Northwest. Only a month ago, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, made an historic visit to the Garden City, which he later told Missoula organizers was his best reception ever in the United States, and which diplomats in New York City have since dubbed “the Missoula Melt.”
This week, three representatives of the Middle East peace process—Israeli Consul General Yossi Amrani, UN ambassador for the League of Arab States Hussein Hassouna, and former U.S. ambassador to Jordan Roscoe Suddarth—visited Missoula for a community dialogue on the challenges and possibilities of peace in that region. That forum, “Peace in the Middle East: Three Perspectives,” helped kick off this week’s Model Arab League, a role-playing exercise involving 80 students from four college campuses designed to increase students’ awareness and understanding of the Arab world.
If Missoula seems about as far removed from the Middle East as anyplace on Earth, the Montana World Affairs Council has done wonders at drawing us closer together. In its short six-month existence, the World Affairs Council at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center has put Missoula squarely on the diplomatic radar screen, while simultaneously helping to dispel many popular myths and misconceptions about the people and nations of the Middle East.
This week’s Model Arab League serves as a perfect example of how students are learning to see beyond the 20-second news bite of Israeli fighter jets and rock-throwing Palestinians that virtually define many Americans’ comprehension of Middle Eastern affairs. As Tania Wieck, a UM senior and secretariat in the Model Arab League explains, the five committees that comprise the Model Arab League—Security, Social, Political, Economic and Palestinian Affairs—force students to delve into the myriad issues that underlie that region’s politics: water, land, economics, poverty, democracy, the Arab “brain drain,” the role of women. “You can’t have one without all the others,” says Wieck.
One source of the problem, says Wieck, is that many Western journalists who report on the region themselves have only a rudimentary understanding of the issues that underlie Middle Eastern affairs. As a result, she says, we get “education of the uneducated by the uneducated.” She notes that for many of her fellow students participating in the Model Arab League—including some journalism students—this is the first college-level history course they’ve ever taken.
In one respect , the American media may be excused for their difficulty in piecing together the complex puzzle that is the Middle East. Even among the 22 independent nations of the Arab League, the Arab community rarely speaks in one voice, a reflection of the many conflicting feelings and mixed messages about the plight of their Palestinian people.
“I think that in the Arab world, there is a general sense of guilt and sympathy for the Palestinians,” explains UM history professor Mehrdad Kia, who helped organize this week’s Middle East peace forum. “The majority of Arab governments, while expressing a general sympathy for the Palestinians, actually deep down fear Palestinians. Because every time the Palestinians have moved to an Arab country, there have always been problems with them.”
Kia cites the example of Jordan in 1970, when certain Palestinian factions tried to remove Jordan’s King Hussein and forced the Jordanian army into a bloody confrontation with them. Similar troubles arose after large numbers of Palestinians fled to Lebanon. Five years later, that country was gripped in a bloody civil war that eventually led to the Israeli invasion of 1982.
But as Kia points out, studies of American television viewing habits have shown that when images of the Middle East appear on screen, most viewers will switch to another channel, having resolved in their own minds that the images are bloody, the players are fanatics, the issues are complex, and the prospects for peace are dim. But Kia emphasizes that Americans turn a blind eye to Middle Eastern affairs at their own peril.
“Before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, 80 percent of people couldn’t find it on a map,” says Kia. “Two months later the sons of Montana were serving in the Persian Gulf. This is how fast things can change.”
Ultimately, he says, the goal of programs like the Model Arab League and Wednesday’s Middle East peace forum is not to impose a specific perception of the Arab world or promote one nation’s agenda over another, but rather to “develop informed leaders for the future, wherever they may be.”
“My personal opinion is that there are different levels where you can change public opinion and approach issues of racism and bigotry,” says Raymond Risho, executive director of the Northern Rockies Committee on U.S.-Arab Relations, which launched the Model Arab League in Missoula. “And knowledge is one of them.”