Pen pals for Muslim-Western understanding: By Kendra Lahue

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In second grade I had a pen pal named Annie from Simsbury, Connecticut. She was a student at one of the schools in my town.
We wrote letters to each other every week and talked about our hobbies, families and schools. At the end of the year, we met in person and I discovered I had a new friend.
However, I never thought this simple concept could work as well to build lasting relationships between Americans and people in the Middle East. In the 2008 fall semester of my Islam and Politics course, I became involved with the Soliya Connect Programme, a non-profit organisation that facilitates intercultural dialogue through new technologies.
I was paired with an Applied English student in Jordan named Maha. Advanced video technology, email and the online networking site, Facebook, cultivated our relationship. It was a glamourised 21st century version of my second grade communication with my childhood pen pal.
In our first conversation, Maha and I were surprised to find we had plenty in common. We shared similar feelings towards school, love and our dreams for the future.
Our similarities enabled us to build a foundation for mutual respect and understanding of one another, and most importantly, friendship.
The bonds we built were strong enough that we could soon discuss more poignant issues. Maha, originally from Palestine, was very emotionally tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Listening to her perspective on the topic opened my eyes to the issue.
By speaking with a woman who has been personally affected by the conflict, I became connected to it myself. I learned more about the issue from Maha than I ever could have by following the news.
Furthermore, Maha was not my only source for exposure to life in the Middle East. She introduced me to four of her close friends and family members via Facebook. I had four new pen pals! By exchanging messages with them, I gained access to a broad range of opinions and insight into a region often mislabelled as the antithesis of America.
My new pen pals' opinions on various issues were not very different from the opinions of people in America; in fact, they were surprisingly similar. For example, when I asked them what they thought was the greatest challenge facing Jordan, one responded, a "lack of democracy", and three of the four deemed poverty the major problem they observed in their everyday lives.
These two answers do not contradict the American mindset on foreign and domestic issues; on the contrary, they support it through complementary moral undertones of equality and justice. Few Americans would object to improving the democratic process and eradicating poverty. As it turns out the two civilisations, which scholars like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis often describe as "clashing", actually have similar problems and are both searching for solutions.
Based on conversations with my new friends in the Middle East, I think overcoming the perceived ideological and cultural divisions between the United States and the Arab world must start at an individual level. My answer is an age-old classic: pen pals.
New technology has modernised this form of communication and transformed the connection between global cultures into something distinctly local and personal.
Developing personal relationships across cultures allows one to gain an insider's perspective and a unique understanding of complicated conflicts.
In addition, those who participate in cross-cultural exchanges are likely to realise the significant common ground they share with their counterparts.
Maha has taught me more than she will ever realise. Her friendship, wisdom and humour will remain with me throughout my education and into the real world. And I hope that she has gained a similar appreciation of American life and culture through me.

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* Kendra Lahue is a senior at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, majoring in political science. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

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