It's not power but ignorance that betrays America

Such ignorance about the outside world is worrying, considering the imperial role that the US is taking on
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There's something terribly emblematic about the disastrous trip Mr Mohammed al-Rehaief made recently to West Virginia in America. Mr al-Rehaief is a brave Iraqi lawyer, who during the recent war found out that an American private soldier, Jessica Lynch, was lying in an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah. At considerable risk to himself, he made his way towards the American forces and told them this; quite why he did this is not clear, since it seems unlikely that Private Lynch was in any personal danger.

However, thanks to Mr al-Rehaief's information, American forces raided the hospital and rescued their soldier. The story, suitably embellished, made its way around the world as an example of American military heroism, and Private Lynch became an enormous celebrity, selling her life story, I Am A Soldier Too for some £600,000. It comes out next month, to enormous fanfare.

Mr al-Rehaief's story, after his escapade, was not quite so glorious. He became extremely unpopular in Iraq, and was viewed in some quarters as a collaborator. Fearing for his life, he applied for, and was granted, asylum in the United States. Recently, he made a trip to Private Lynch's home town of Palestine, West Virginia, hoping to say hello to her. Alas, she was far too busy with preparations for her publicity campaign to say thank you in person. Perhaps, too, she was displeased that Mr al-Rehaief has already published his own book, Because Each Life Is Precious - what is it with these people and their book titles? - but in any case, he was comprehensively snubbed.

That was the main thrust of the story as reported, but I think the subsequent events are rather more telling. To add insult to injury, the good people of Palestine, West Virginia, tried to lay on a hero's welcome for Mr al-Rehaief, and named him an honorary West Virginian, something which no doubt comes with benefits unclear to the rest of us. It was kindly meant. But alas, the splendid buffet offered to their new hero went unappreciated, since they had forgotten, or never known, that it was Ramadan and Mr al-Rehaief would be fasting. Nor did anyone in Palestine, West Virginia, suspect that plates of the fine local ham might not be exactly the thing to offer a practising Muslim.

Many people have a tale to tell about the occasional ignorance of Americans about the outside world, and cultures not their own; too many, indeed, to deny that although there are many Americans with a deep understanding and curiosity about the world, the culture also contains people who apparently know nothing about the world, and are not remotely ashamed of the fact.

You don't even need to go to America to find this out; I once heard two American ladies ask in a London bank for "two hundred dollars", and when the cashier started to count them out, shouted: "No, no, I mean British dollars". Flying from Italy to London once, an American student sitting next to me confided that it was going to be nice to be back in "English-land"; when I raised an eyebrow, he said, entirely seriously, "You know, somewhere they've learnt to speak English."

Or there were the Americans in Florence a month or so ago, waiting next to me at a bus stop; I was reading an Italian newspaper, and although I don't look at all Italian, they took the opportunity to discuss everything about me, from soup to nuts. Then the bus arrived, and they got on and asked the driver, still in English, whether the bus would take them where they wanted to go. Did they believe that people in Italy could be relied upon to understand English, or not? Difficult to say; perhaps they only believed that foreigners had an existence convenient for their purposes, and no other.

Such examples are not universal among Americans, nor, really, is the phenomenon particularly surprising or unusual in the citizens of very large countries; one meets a comparable ignorance about the outside world when travelling around India. But the fact that it is so widespread and recognisable, even among the tiny proportion of Americans who travel abroad, is deeply worrying for the rest of us, considering the imperial role that the United States seems to be taking on.

Although we are told that US forces in Iraq are now actively engaging with local sensitivities, the things which seem to alarm the White House and the Pentagon make it sound as if this is a very superficial enterprise. A Dr Noah Feldman, an adviser to the government and an expert in Islamic law, has said that the most likely Iraqi government to be elected democratically would be an Islamic one. This didn't seem at all an unlikely thing to suggest would happen in the wake of Saddam Hussein, but what is interesting is the US government's response. Any official recognition of Islam would be unacceptable; and, according to one unnamed senior figure, "the first foreign policy of a democratic Iraq would be to recognise Israel." Dr Feldman, splendid fellow, wondered what the spokesman "had been smoking when he said that".

The point is that the US government, in saying these things, sounds exactly like my travelling companion marvelling that they spoke English in England. Islam is utterly embedded in Iraqi life, and some official status for the national religion seems inescapable. Personally, I would prefer all nations to be secular, and Islamic ones to be run along the lines of Turkey rather than Iran, but that isn't always possible. If an Islamic democracy can be achieved in Iraq, and business handed over to Islamic moderates, that will be a reasonable achievement. Insisting on a secular constitution and banning all Islamic political parties sounds great, but it will have the medium-term effect of creating an Islamic resistance and perhaps even a fundamentalist revolution.

What is worrying is the sense that to Iraq's new masters, the idea of Islam is instantly frightening. An Islamic republic, from that angle, could not be anything but a threat, oppressing and exploiting its own people and representing a huge danger to the West. The idea of a moderate Islam is unimaginable.

Hence, too, the complete failure of American policy towards Iran, which should be encouraging the development of democracy, human rights and detente within existing structures, and not aiming, as sometimes seems all too likely, at reinstating the Shah. The process of relaxation within Iran is, I think, slowly under way - very slowly, alas. But if left alone, it could result in a humane society with a range of secular and religious opinions at its head. Not accepting the role which Islam plays in the lives of most citizens of these countries, refusing to give the clerics some, at least, of the power which they incontrovertibly believe to be their right, will create immense problems in the medium to long term.

And it comes, I think, from an unwillingness to understand and accept that not everybody in the world is American, and not everybody would want to be. Some people are devout Muslims without remotely wishing to blow anyone up, or run a plane into a skyscraper; such people don't deserve to be ruled by an imperial authority which openly hates a faith it doesn't understand, and would outlaw it if it could.

In a way, the story of the small town in West Virginia where nobody thought that a visiting Muslim wouldn't be delighted to be offered a ham sandwich is a funny one; but in another, it does tell you something appalling about the superpower now taking charge of millions of very un-American lives.