My mother was fond of saying “if you want someone to hear you, you must first listen to them”—know them, understand the questions they are asking, and be sensitive to their concerns. If you do this, she would say, “you will be able to speak with people and not at them”.
What happens when you don’t follow this simple rule of communication was on display during the “In Defense of Christians” conference that was held in Washington from September 9th to the 11th.
Addressing an audience of 900 mostly Arab Christians, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) launched into a passionate defense of Israel arguing that “Christians have no better ally than the Jewish State”. The audience booed. Undeterred, Cruz continued, to more booing, “those who hate Israel hate America” and “those who hate Jews hate Christians”. When the audience would not stop, Cruz cut short his remarks charging “some here are so consumed with hate…if you will not stand with Israel and Jews, then I will not stand with you”. He then walked off the stage.
It is generally known that Ted Cruz can be a demagogue, a quality that makes him immensely disliked by his colleagues. He is also considered to be quite bright and calculating. And so as I have attempted to understand why he did what he did, two distinct scenarios come to mind. It is possible that he went to the IDC conference to provoke a “Sister Souljah” moment—which he could then exploit with his supporters on the fundamentalist right as evidence of his political courage. It is more likely that he had no clue about the reaction his taunting remarks would receive and was, therefore, stunned by the audience reaction—and that it was only mid-stream that he decided that he could use the audience reaction to his political benefit.
In either case, Cruz displayed a shameful insensitivity to the concerns of Middle East Christians and a total lack of awareness of their history and current needs. Like too many of his colleagues, he can only see the Middle East through then lens of what is good for Israel. Because he comes out of the Christian fundamentalist world and now operates in the bubble of Washington politics, he simply had no understanding of his audience and no desire to listen to them and learn from them.
Immediately upon leaving the event, he issued a statement to Breitbart (a far-right website) calling the audience reaction “a shameful display of…ignorance and bigotry”. He lamented that while he had wanted to lay out a litany of examples of Christians and Jews persecuted by “Islamic radicals”, his efforts to do so were upended by “bigotry and hatred” and “the corrosive evil of anti-Semitism”.
In fact, in this entire sad and sordid affair, the only ignorance and bigotry on display was that of the Senator, himself. He cared not a bit for the feelings of Arab Christians. Blinded by his own lack of understanding and concern, Cruz appeared to be more interested in scoring political points with his conservative base, than in taking the time to know what Christians in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq really feel and want.
If he had listened to the six Patriarchs of Eastern churches (as President Obama did in a lengthy meeting with the prelates on Thursday), all of whom also addressed the conference, he would have heard them speak of their history of coexistence with Muslims. They, of course, are deeply concerned with the rise of extremism and horrified by the brutally violent excesses of those who are using a distorted Islam to create the terror they use to consolidate political power. But far from wanting to pour fuel on the fires of a “clash of civilizations” that pits Jews and Christians against Muslims, the leaders of these Eastern churches seek the defeat of extremism and the creation of a social order that can build societies based on equal rights for all and reconciliation among all faith traditions.
But Cruz wasn’t listening. He came to the event with preconceived notions and prepackaged message. He was speaking at Middle East Christians, using them as a prop to promote his own agenda. Unfortunately, he is not alone.
For decades now, American politicians have paid scant attention to the realities of the Arab World and the history and needs of its people. Their awareness of the region has been framed by Israel and oil. One, they felt was necessary for their electoral ambitions, the other was important for our economic well-being. Seeing the world through this narrow lens produced a “willed ignorance” about broader regional realities. It was not just that politicians did not know about what Arabs were saying or what they wanted, they did not want to know—since they felt that there was no benefit in knowing.
This has created a dangerous state of affairs. In the past four decades since the end of the war in Viet Nam, we have spent more money, sent more weapons, fought more wars, lost more lives, and have more interests at stake in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, and yet we still have too little understanding of its people, their history and culture, and their needs. Because we have had no understanding of Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Iraqis, we have engaged in tragic and costly foreign policy blunders that have taken a terrible toll in human life and the prestige of our country across this critical region.
In my polling, I find that Arabs like our values and culture, our science and technology, our products and our people. What they hate is our policy, because they see its impact on their lives and the insensitivity it demonstrates to their concerns. They want to like us, but feel that we reject them.
It appears that policymakers want to have it both ways. They want to pass insensitive anti-Arab legislation and make outrageous statements about Arabs and Muslims—all for politically expedient ends—and yet they are confounded by the Arab reactions to these taunts and insults.
So it was with Ted Cruz on Wednesday night. Despite his reputation, he was set to deliver a speech with which I am certain many of his congressional colleagues would have concurred. After all, they might say, what could anyone find offensive in praising Israel and denouncing radical Islam—especially to an audience of fellow Christians? But it was not the message this audience needed or wanted to hear, precisely because they are suffering—and because many of them have suffered at the hands of Israel. Because he didn’t really want to help them, or care to know them or to listen to them they booed and booted him off the stage.
There is a lesson in this, for those who care to learn. And it’s not only about the importance of communicating. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simmering on low boil; with violent extremists gaining ground in the heart of the Arab East; with Lebanon on the brink, overwhelmed by refugees and in danger of being engulfed the sectarian conflict brewing next door; and with ancient Christian churches threatened with extinction—the President has announced that we are now about to reengage militarily in Iraq and Syria. Before we do, it is important that we not repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to be certain that we understand the people and the cultural and social dynamics at work in each of these countries before it’s too late and our efforts to help become yet another in a series of fatal errors that have marked our history of involvement in this region about which we know so little.