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An evening conversation: Salaam

By Stephen Cameron

There are a lot of good reasons to reasons to live in Manhattan.

If I were forced to list them, however, I’d start with proximity to a major university — and in particular, access to discussion and debate over everything from a running quarterbacks to geopolitical strategy.

Sometimes these exchanges of information have wordy names that might put you off; for instance, the appearance of Dr. Juan Cole Thursday night at the… deep breath… Fred L. Parrish Lecture and Colloquium in Religious History at the K-State Alumni Center.

Yes, it’s a mouthful.

So there’s a tendency to yawn and flip on the TV.

If you don’t interact with a university community fairly regularly, you easily might dismiss visiting scholars and experts as a group of eggheads offering tediously long opinions about subjects that couldn’t possibly impact your life.

In fact, Cole’s expertise is an area that means a heck of a lot to all of us: U.S. interaction with the Middle East, and where we’re headed in our dealings with the Islamic world.

Let me simplify it even further: If you plan to drive a car anytime past the end of this year, you have an investment in oil whether you like it or not.

Beyond the obvious reasons common to all of us, I have a particular curiosity about the Middle East.

My mother was born in Egypt, and even though she’s not Arab (her father was a British engineer designing a dam across the Nile), she was named Alexandria in honor of her birthplace – which makes me think I should understand the place at some point.

I’ve also worked fairly recently for an international trade magazine based in Qatar, and have made a couple of trips to that country.

It’s enlightening to interact with everyday Arabs, even here in the States — but staying among them, having morning coffee at the local souk and hearing the traditional call to prayer while strolling through the old neighborhoods of Doha gives you a different view entirely.

For one thing, the average Arab is surprisingly happy to befriend any Westerner and talk until dawn.

Despite what you might suspect, most Arabs will engage in open-minded discussions about anything at all — except the Jews, whom they learn in infancy have stolen Arab land and made prisoners of the Palestinians.

Now we return to Juan Cole, who has spent his professional life studying the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world.

As it happens, I agree with Cole on one of his key premises – that the U.S. is unrealistically “Islamaphobic,” and that on the other side of the world, Muslims likewise are unrealistically frightened of us.

On the other hand, I think Cole is either over the top — or just plain wrong — on some other issues.

Cole’s assertion that al-Qaida is nothing more than minority Arab “cult” angered by American government policy — and is therefore the same as any U.S. homegrown terrorist like Timothy McVeigh —seems a bit absurd.

But no matter where I might agree or shake my head in dismay, the real point here is that universities like K-State provide Cole (and us) the forum to discuss events that shape our lives. And we’re cheating ourselves if we don’t take advantage of that dialogue.

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