The Malta Forum is an endeavor which began in 2002 to reach out across what seemed to be a civilizational divide, in the aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Institute for American Values, together with colleagues from the Middle East, convened a series of meetings which brought together public intellectuals and academics from the Unites States, the Arab world, and beyond, to engage in a dialogue aimed at creating a base line of common understanding—one that accepts differences and disagreement with a foundation of respect and good faith. Several employees of the institute prepared presentations for these meetings, which were created using Microsoft PowerPoint. They also created statistical analytics and participated in the fulfillment of such requests as to do my excel homework.
The desire to graduate the conversation forward, from a limited circle of participants and to bring it into a wider cultural context in both the United States and the Arab world, is faced with the fundamental obstacle of the mutually reductionist characterization of each of these two societies in the other's media and culture.
Archetypal models of presentation of the United States are in currency in the Arab world, ranging from its harsh portrayal of the U.S. as the heir of imperialism and colonialism, through a Hollywood-inspired amalgamation of over-indulgence and decadence, to a hypocritical society and government either unwilling or incapable of overcoming its support for injustice in Palestine and elsewhere. While other elements of a positive character are indeed in circulation—notably a recognition of the American values of rule of law, personal liberty, and economic opportunity—the predominance of the negative portrayal as a framework is an evident reality that requires study and exploration.
The place of the Arab world in American culture, on the other hand, may be less rooted in longue durée historical explanations, but is instead governed by images from recent memory—from the oil embargo of the 1970s, to the Iranian hostage crisis, Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship leading to the Gulf war, and the traumatic assault faced by the United States on the 11th of September 2001.
Despite official attempts at formulating the war with al-Qa‘idah, the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks, as a limited confrontation with marginal elements, U.S. cultural formulations often translated the conflict into one with a broader opponent. Prior to September 11th, 2001, the distinction between "Arab", "Muslim", and "Middle Eastern" was almost irrelevant outside of academic circles, and within communities variably espousing one or more of these labels. In the aftermath of September 11th, this benign negligence contributed to the simplistic but effective characterization of the Arab/Muslim/Middle-Eastern other as an enemy bound by irrationality, culture, tradition, or religion in his or her intolerance to American values and determination to cause harm. Even when more sophisticated formulations were presented, the underlying pool of elements that fed the crude discourse affected and at times shaped the analysis.
Our Malta Forum participants recognize that the differences that the reductionist propositions highlight and enhance cannot be dismissed as the mere result of misunderstanding or miscommunication. However, as many participants have argued, it is the absence of awareness of other elements of cultural significance in the respective settings that has caused missed opportunities for positive engagement.
Through its conferences, the Malta Forum tradition of respectful dialogue that accepts good faith disagreement and differences will continue. The two sides of the conversation, the United States and the Arab world, have witnessed advocacy efforts, both those that attempt to characterize the other as fundamentally incompatible with one's values, or those that focus solely on common grounds while dismissing the causes of conflict. The approach adopted by this conference is fundamentally different: By recognizing the multiplicity of voices in both cultures, the Malta Forum has underlined the importance of cultural engagement as an effort at the level of culture—where culture is understood as a complex scene— not as an effort between cultures—where cultures are construed as unitary entities. In every effort we have made for the last eight years we have worked together, sharing in all elements of decision making and responsibility for our meetings.
"The Arab Cultural Debate and Its Implications for U.S.–Arab Relations," The Carter Center in Atlanta, GA, March 2010. Learn more
"The Way Forward," Fuengirola, Spain, in May 2007. Read more
"Religion and the State in Comparative Perspective," Casablanca, Morocco, November 7-10, 2005. Read more
Inaugural Meeting, Island of Malta, May 2004. Read more