So, I suppose this is as good a topic as any to start out my blog. You’ll find out soon enough that I’m an International Relations geek and am especially focused on transnational Muslim communities in the West. But that’s for other Hindtrospections…
I attended a luncheon this afternoon hosted by Chicago’s Niagara Foundation that featured the Austrian Consul General to Chicago, speaking on the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Ambassador Schnoell started out his remarks by lamenting the fact that most Americans know nothing about Austria. (“Everyone here always thinks I’m Australian,” is what his staffer told me after the lecture. Oh dear, how embarassing!) He continued on to say that the US-EU trans-Atlantic relationship runs the risk of becoming dormant in the 21st Century if there’s no proactive action based on our common cultural values.
He focused the rest of his 40 minute speech on commerce, military pacts, global warming and historical reasons why Austria is reluctant to become part of NATO. Of course, as an IR geek, I totally ate his remarks up (he was just the kind of hipster glasses-wearing, Euro-hairstyled primary source that I would have loved to have had as a guest lecturer in one of my college courses). But as a person who is today working on building interfaith cooperation through action and dialogue, his observations fell short with me.
I wondered why he focused so much on commerce and global climate change, but not on education, citizen exchanges and strengthening of programs like the “Sister Cities” as major pieces of trans-Atlantic policy. Perhaps more Americans would know the difference between Australia and Austria if more Americans had the chance to learn firsthand about Austria (one would hope!). Building Chambers of Commerce is important, but it doesn’t really affect today’s college students – tomorrow’s leaders. He was right in identifying the common cultural links between the US and the EU: both are democratic, secular, multi-cultural and vibrant democratic societies. There should be more links between the two societies.
How amazing would it be to have government support endeavors of citizens organizing young people to build trans-Atlantic bridges to discuss these very issues that connect us? Not only the environment, NATO and commerce, but also interfaith cooperation, interethnic harmony, and the empowerment of marginalized communities? I had the opportunity to go on one such exchange 2 years ago, to the Netherlands. As citizen-diplomats, my 6 fellow Americans and I travelled all over the country to learn about Muslim integration [woes] and met some really fabulous people there.
One such fabulous person we met there is the president of a Muslim women’s organization, al-Nisaa, which recently launched a national media campaign to stand in solidarity with American Muslims after the Park51 backlash. One reason they felt they had to get involved was the appearance of the Dutch populist politician, Geert Wilders, at an anti-Muslim 9/11 commemoration organized by an Islamophobic group (one which gets substantial funding from European backers). Wilders and al-Nisaa both realize the strength of the trans-Atlantic relationship: the common values and cultures that the two societies share are what connect us across the pond. Wilders exploits this shared identity by claiming the West has a common enemy – Muslims & Islam. Al-Nisaa leverages this shared identity by saying the West has a common value: the democratic value of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
I’d love to see more of that second type of trans-Atlantic mobilization get more support and hope that one day, American high school students won’t need international investment in their education to figure out the difference between Austria and Australia.