For some 20 years I taught a number of foreign students from the Middle East in the United States, and sometimes noticed a disturbing tendency. Over their four- or five-year tenure, many exhibited a predictable evolution in their thoughts about their newfound freedoms — especially as the time for graduation and for reckoning with a return home approached. Initial exuberance at America’s openness often was followed with deep uncertainty whether our rejection of traditional repression was healthy — especially in the permissive campus landscape of risqué female fashion, open homosexuality, easy mixing of the races and religions, atheism, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. We are not usually talking about the transition from a cosmopolitan Beirut to a somewhat comparable Salt Lake City, but from the most repressive conditions in the Arab world to the most liberal in the West — from the eighth-century code of behavior of Saudi Arabia to the 22nd or 23rd century postmodern world at a Berkeley or a Madison.Often coupled with such abhorrence at our license is awe at America’s wealth and technology. From that volatile mixture a predictable confusion often emerges: Why is America so much richer and stronger than the Arab world, when it is clearly more decadent and godless? This questioning is often answered by a variety of conspiratorial exegeses, laced with pop history and mythology that are the products of the media, mosques, and madrassas back home. Surely colonialism, or Israel, or the CIA, or American-backed dictators, or secret agreements, or oil companies best explain the current mess in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, or Amman, those cities that were once the proud towers of the ancient caliphate.He also thinks it sends the wrong signal. A signal that it is okay to hate America, we love you anyway.
But there is also a second reason to be concerned about these incoming students, one that likewise involves innate human nature, and especially the American sense of self. During the Cold War, we were not at war with the people of Eastern Europe, but we still did not readily admit into the United States very many students from Albania, Bulgaria, or Poland. It wasn’t just that we worried whether some were informants or worse, but also that, in such an ideological struggle, it was important to remind the masses in those countries of the wages of their repressive governments. In the current war, such thinking would translate into something like the following: The popularity of bin Laden in the Arab Street, the continual hatred expressed for America and Jews in the state-controlled Middle East media, and the constant bombings and killings of Westerners by Muslims that are as often rationalized as condemned by Arab voices — all this surely must have consequences, if only to show that Americans sometimes are as unpredictably emotional as we are usually coldly rational. Thus for now it is perhaps better that travel from the Arab Middle East is made problematic — if only to remind everyone concerned of the consequences of their hatred that still emanates from the Middle East. Many Americans are not convinced that our magnanimity with the Islamic world wins praise as liberality, rather than earning contempt for our perceived weakness. And if we must let in thousands of students from the Middle East, why not the children of those kindred brave souls fighting for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan?