In the international community, anti-U.S. sentiment has been exacerbated by events like the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, the Guantanamo Bay scandal, and the drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Likewise, stereotypes and misconceptions of the Islamic World have been common place in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Rebecca Cataldi, a program manager for a non-profit in Washington, D.C. is working to change these perceptions with her initiative – the American-Islamic Friendship Project. She was inspired to start this project – a collection of messages of peace and friendships between people in the U.S. and the Muslim world – after visiting the Middle East and Pakistan. Below, she tells CHUP more about her initiative, why she started it, and what you can do to contribute:
Q: Can you explain the concept behind your American-Islamic Friendship Project?
The American-Islamic Friendship Project collects messages of peace and friendship from Americans to people in the Muslim world and from people in the Muslim world to Americans. When enough messages have been gathered, I hope to publish them in a book to be distributed in America and various Muslim countries. The goal is to build greater understanding and friendship between our countries by allowing the voices of “ordinary” people to be heard, dispelling the perception that Americans and people in the Muslim world harbor hostility toward each other, and connecting Americans and people from diverse Muslim countries in promoting our common desire for a more peaceful world.
Q: What inspired you to start this initiative?
Events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War made me want to do something to promote friendship and greater understanding between Americans and people in the Muslim world. I believe that cultural exchange and personal relationships between “ordinary” people can play a powerful role in creating social change and improving relations between their nations. So I began to visit Muslim-majority countries so that I could meet people and learn about their culture firsthand. I admit I was a little apprehensive at first. I wasn’t sure how people would treat me as an American. Many Americans have the perception that people in Muslim countries don’t like them or would be hostile to them if they came to their countries. Before I went to Egypt, for example, people in America told me to be careful and worried that something might happen to me. When I got there, however, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the Egyptian people. Instead of the hostility or anti-American prejudice I was afraid I might find, I found that people were curious about Americans and were happy that someone from America wanted to learn about their country. In talking about political and cultural issues, we found we had much more in common than we had expected. Yet I was surprised to see that many Egyptians seemed to have the perception that Americans don’t like Arabs or Muslims or would be hostile to them if they came to America. I had a similar experience when I went to Pakistan on a project to visit women’s madrassas. People there were incredibly kind, hospitable, and welcoming to me. They didn’t seem to dislike Americans, yet many of them seemed to believe that Americans dislike them.
In my opinion, the majority of people in America and in the Muslim world don’t have any hostility toward each other and want to have greater friendship and understanding between our countries, yet we tend to believe that the other has hostility toward us. I wanted to dispel this misperception by finding a way for Americans and people in the Muslim world to be able to communicate their real feelings to each other. One Egyptian university student did some beautiful drawings symbolizing peace and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and she asked me to take them back to my country and share them with Americans. I was touched by her desire to reach out to us, and when I shared them with Americans, they were so happy to receive a message of peace and friendship from someone in the Muslim world. I started the American-Islamic Friendship Project for two reasons-first, because I wanted to return the kindness I had received in Muslim countries with the gift of messages of kindness and peace from my own country, and second, because I wanted to enable people in America and the Muslim world to hear the real feelings of each other, the feelings of ordinary people beyond what we hear in the media.
Q: What were the most surprising reactions to the book, both from the American and the Muslim side?
The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. I guess what surprised me most on the American side was how many people said something like, “I’ve been wanting to reach out to people in these countries for long time and I didn’t know how.” They were so happy for an opportunity to communicate with people in the Muslim world. What surprised me most in the Muslim world were the reactions of some madrassa teachers in Pakistan when the messages were shared with them. Some of them actually cried when they read what Americans had written. One madrassa teacher, upon reading a message from a six-year-old American girl, said, “If American children are writing to us to express peace and love, then we have to respond in kind-not only with our words, but with our actions.”
Q: How can initiatives like yours help bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Islamic World?
“Ordinary” people have such a powerful role to play in building better relations between our countries, because it is ordinary people who collectively shape the social consciousness of a nation, and the social consciousness affects the nation’s attitude toward other cultures and international problems. Difficult issues like the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine can only be resolved if America and the Islamic world can work together as partners in problem-solving, and not as enemies or rivals. In order to be able to collaborate as partners, we need to believe that the other wants to work with us, to know that the other doesn’t hate us, and to trust that the other shares goals in common with us-such as an end to violence and a government that protects the rights of its people-even when we have different ideas about how to reach those goals. So it is so important for us to be able to say to each other, and to hear from each other, “We don’t hate you. We want to work with you to solve these problems. We want friendship and peace.” This is a simple but powerful message, which is often drowned out in the fog of war and terrorism. Perceptions can create reality by shaping thoughts and actions. I believe that initiatives that connect people with each other at the human level can play a powerful role in building better relations by affecting our perceptions of each other.
Q: How can people get involved?
There are three main ways: 1. Contribute a message to the book. We are always looking for messages to add to the book, particularly from people in the Muslim world, where we need to gather a lot more. Any message is welcome as long as it promotes peace, friendship, and understanding. It can be as short as a sentence or as long as a page. Anonymous messages are also welcome, but please identity your country. 2. Identify and connect us with organizations or people who may like to receive a copy of the book or contribute messages. Messages gathered so far have been compiled in a makeshift (pre-publishing) book and have been sent to various places, especially schools and universities in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan. We are always looking for new places to send the book and for places where we can gather new messages for the final published version. Contacts at schools are particularly appreciated. 3. Help us find a publisher for the final book. Donations are also welcome. For any of the above, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and write “American-Islamic Friendship Project” in the subject line.