Much current commentary focusing on the Arab world presents a bleak picture. The carnage in Syria shows no sign of abating, with divisions inside the rebel movements the latest indication of Arab disintegration. Lebanon, on edge at the best of times, is dangerously close to its own Syria-inspired civil strife. Egypt’s path to sustainable democracy remains shaky, while violence in certain parts of Iraq has hit levels not seen in several years.
As for the relations of the Arab world with the West, and with Europe in particular, the outlook is complicated. If pre-Arab Spring philosophies were morally suspect but politically simple (tolerate an autocratic Middle East for the sake of stability) and post-revolution ideology offered glimmers of hope (dialogue and acceptance of democratically elected Islamist parties), the current situation is one of perplexity. Who should the EU support in the vacillating confusion of Egypt, Libya and Syria? How can Europeans understand the aspirations of the Arab peoples if these peoples seemingly keep changing their mind? Is it worth making the effort to understand or should we revert to pre-Arab awakening approaches?
"Happily, at the human level certain initiatives are still taking place."
Happily, at the human level certain initiatives are still taking place which aim to bridge the gulf between cultures. I have just returned from the Sharqiya Sands in Eastern Oman, where for five intense and inspiring days, food, tents and ideas were shared by 17 youths from across Europe and the Arab world. The Connecting Cultures programme, organised by the global educational organisation Outward Bound, brought together future political and social leaders from nine European and six Arab nations with the goal of increasing mutual understanding and finding shared values.
It worked. From the moment the group met in Muscat, through the sometimes physical journey through the Omani desert, until the final send-off after Mutrah Souq, the atmosphere was not one of distrust but one of unqualified openness, respect and curiosity about the others.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Exchanging views on pressing issues around an evening campfire brought the realisation that although different opinions and stereotypes persist, the overall goal of peaceful coexistence remains the same for all. Pausing a game of rugby for Islamic prayers demonstrated the pervasiveness of religion for many among us; yet the prompt restart post-prayer showed that religion is just one part of a multifaceted and much broader daily existence. Pitching tents together and sharing personal space hammered home that idiots and extremists exist in every country and every culture - what matters is the human, not his nationality or cultural background.
Each of the participants flew home deeply moved and inspired by the experience, with an increased understanding of each other and of our common heritage, a heightened sensibility regarding the vicissitudes of cultural stereotyping and misunderstanding, and a newfound love for the hospitality and natural beauty of Oman.
But is this enough? Will the lessons learned by 54 youths (there are 3 such trips annually) eventually “trickle-up” to affect the mentalities in the corridors of power or to broaden the often blinkered horizons of mainstream media? How can the majority of the populations of Europe and the Arab world - who do not have access to the luxurious opportunities of cultural exchange programmes - be persuaded that their neighbour is not an unassailable and unknowable stranger?
"Connecting Cultures are the most promising initiatives we have."
This is an unanswerable question. The factors which play upon cultural misunderstandings - and ultimately, stereotypes - are numerous, intertwined and often unsolvable. History plays a part. Human nature, constantly searching for simplicity, for black-and-white characterisations in order to understand the world, can also naturally tend towards subjectivity. Media is shaped both by history and humans, and as such cannot ever be free of bias, as much as it may try. Education, perhaps the most promising solution to cultural misunderstanding, simply cannot provide an intellectual overview of every world affair; especially to young minds naturally more attracted to their immediate surroundings.
But, as a starting point for change, programmes such as Connecting Cultures are the most promising initiatives we have. As Europe managed to socialize a generation of young citizens through free movement and the Erasmus initiative, face-to-face contact is key to breaking down barriers. And as we return home more enlightened, we take our ideas with us, influencing countless more in our native countries through the butterfly effect of socialisation. Despite what the history books tell us about glorious revolutions and devastating wars, the most profound changes in human history have been incremental; and the incremental change which begins with a Palestinian and a Briton sharing a joke around a desert campfire finishes in the future handshakes of world leaders.