Americans, Muslims need understanding

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I had an interesting reminder recently that I am, in fact, an American living in the Middle East. With the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden occurring this month, my friends and I spoke to each other of what we should expect.

Though Jordan is the most stable and peaceful nation in the region we do have a large Salifiyeen (the ultra-conservative branch of Islam, of which bin Laden was probably the most infamous member) presence among us.

The anniversary passed without incident, but it did produce a sense of reflection amongst many of us expatriated Americans who are attempting to live in the post-9/11 Arab world.

I was living in Jordan when bin Laden was killed one year ago. The night after it happened, when every news channel was playing the same scenes, I was sitting in a barbershop in a very conservative neighborhood in Amman.

Al Jazeera was showing the footage of Americans celebrating the death of Public Enemy Number One in the streets all over the country. I watched with a group of old Muslim men as my countrymen celebrated not only the death of a man, but the demise the image of an ideology. These men were not necessarily bin Laden supporters, but they were Muslim men nonetheless. And really, to the average American, what is the difference?

All I could do was turn to them and say, "I am so sorry."

It wasn't the celebrating I felt the need to apologize for. It was the misconceptions being reinforced through the one-sided media representation. It was the "us against them" mentality we all live with, knowingly or not.

The day after the barbershop incident I got into a taxi, and the driver asked me which country I was from. I told him I was American and he asked, quite frankly, "Why are you here? Don't you hate us?"

In the midst of reflecting on having lived in the Muslim world now for over a year, I don't feel many of the conceptions toward each other -- Arab/Muslim American/Westerner -- have changed. We tend to see each other through the lenses of extremism. Americans, through the Islamic extremists we see on our news channels; Arabs, through the movies, celebrities and politicians who, to their conservative culture, seem to lack any sense of morality or decency.

How might we change this?

Knowledge, I think, is key. As Americans we can become even more proactive in our pursuit of understanding through a greater knowledge of the Arab and Islamic world. Learning that the only difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites isn't simply who is standing at the end of the barrel of a gun.

Or that Palestinians are both Muslims and Christians, and have been for the past 1,300 years.

Or even as simple as the fact that Arab's don't wear "turbans," and they don't live in Afghanistan (Afghanis are from entirely different ethnic groups).

Yes, of course we will have differing opinions, but we have to start expanding our thinking at some point. And, if we care to prevent further conflict for the generations to come, now might be a good time to start.

Micah Studer grew up in Walla Walla and worked for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation before moving to the Middle East in November 2010. He maintains a blog about his life in Jordan at dontscratchthat.tumblr.com.

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