Building, Not Bombing

The Road to Peace

by Annette Swierzbinski

May 7, 2002

The following is a letter to the people of Saudi Arabia that I was asked to write by Sheikh Salman al Oadah, a fundamentalist Saudi theologian in the Wahhabi tradition. It is a response to "How We Can Coexist", a letter signed by 153 Saudi thinkers calling for an open dialogue with the West in order to explore ways in which our two cultures can reconcile and find peace. Sheikh al Oadah asked me to write something that would demonstrate to the Saudis that there are Americans who believe in peace and justice. You can read "How We Can Coexist" at or

Thirty years ago this July when I was in my teens, I had the opportunity to travel to Poland. It was during the Cold War and the Vietnam War. That summer I met the "enemy"— I was part of a community of international students and many were from Communist bloc countries and North Vietnam. As I became friends with Russians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Poles, North Vietnamese and others, I understood that none of these human beings were enemies and that enemies were created by our respective governments. I call this the political disconnect from popular reason and sentiment. It will reappear in this essay, implicitly if not explicitly.

In 1976, I wanted to be outside the United States because I have no taste for nationalistic extravaganzas. That summer was the bicentennial celebration. I met my brother who was studying in Cambridge, England and we went off on a "grand tour" of Europe—backpacking and low budget, but with months of rail passes ahead of us. When we arrived in Paris, he longed for home and left me at Cite Universitaire, an international student campus, where I had my first meeting with people from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I let my 2 month rail pass expire there because I formed deep friendships with Iranians, Lebanese, Turks, and Pakistanis—all Muslim. We made dinner together every night and most often I was the only woman in the group. I was treated with great respect and felt comfortable and loved amongst my brothers and later a Yemeni family who joined us. Sometimes I did not have a common language with my friends, but we cared intensely for each other. At that time, I became aware of the importance of poetry as a medium for communication in Arab societies, something the West does not really share. It was an education that was valuable beyond measure. It was a connection from the heart that I will never forget—I can still see each of my beloved friends in my mind’s eye even though political situations worldwide made us lose one another. Once again, I saw how politics divide what human beings build.

9-11 happened. My first response was to demand revenge and retribution. For a few days I wanted someone, and it could probably have been anyone "officially" labeled enemy or terrorist, to be bombed, attacked, annihilated. That was from fear and grief and the belief that the world would never allow my daughter to grow up and lead a fruitful life. Everywhere she and I tried to go, we were stopped by panic and another bomb threat or bomb scare. Some days after September 11th, my outrage subsided and I started to examine causes and solutions. There will never be a justification for the attacks because rational and compassionate human beings cannot justify acts of terrible violence. However, a reprehensible response to legitimate causes does not eliminate the need to take a hard look at policies and actions that give rise to them. That our leaders have difficulty distinguishing cause from effect should not block the path to resolution, reconciliation and peace.

And I would like to say that, of course, Americans are not the only ones who have suffered heinous tragedies. One positive thing that arose from the ashes of the World Trade Center is that the tragedy brought home to many hearts the suffering of other people around the world. I think many would be surprised at the number of Americans that empathize with the injustices done to others worldwide and strive for a more equitable and balanced global voice and economy.

I have had occasion to meditate on how I came to accept and love people from very different backgrounds and beliefs than my own. It always came from putting a human face on the stereotypical and self-serving illusions fostered by governments, media and partisan groups. When I reached out my hand, my heart and my open mind to others, I found that I was facing a truth that made sense to me. People around the world are more similar to one another in core ethics, morality and humanity than our respective nations and the establishment media (corporate media, in the United States) would have us believe. We care deeply for human life, all human life not just our own. There is an interesting idea being circulated here about how governments operate: they invent a series of lies and get citizens arguing about which one is the truth. By believing the lies, we buy into hatred, mistrust, fear and anger. We buy into violence. We buy into division. Who was it who coined the phrase "divide and conquer?" We buy into conquest. But we have other choices and we must make them without delay.

Americans need to open their eyes and see the direction our current policies are taking us.

By now it should be clear to everyone that bombing the Afghani people did not make the United States more secure and that the "war on terrorism" is giving birth to new terrorists or "asymmetrical combatants". Dick Cheney has promised us attacks exceeding those of 9-11 and as we await the "when, not if" of the inevitable, our fear allows erosion of our civil rights. Recently the FBI director stated that Americans can never be safe as long as they want the right to move about freely (read as "movements unmonitored") and the right to privacy (read as "life without Big Brother"). U.S. military spending will soon exceed the combined spending of the rest of the world—more shades of us versus them, with perhaps some sinister goblins lurking in the shadows. How offensive is the U.S. that it needs so much "defense"? Apparently, more and more so.

Any nation who ratifies the treaty enabling the International Criminal Court is getting closer to the Bush "evildoers" list and will be barred from U.S. arms trade. In the event that an American soldier or elected official is ever "dragged" before this "rogue" court established by international consensus, the president will most likely be authorized to use force to rescue them. This could mean U.S. military action against a European country. As the government enthusiastically expands the "them" team, American people sit back innocently and ask "why do they hate us?" Each day the world bears less resemblance to a reasonable place to live. We need to reclaim it. But Americans cannot do this from the lonely place of superpower people.

Since 9-11, the rallying cry "United we stand!" has become ubiquitous here. It is time to take it global. We must transform the people of the world from the "silent majority" of the twenty-first century into a strong and united voice for peace that demands government policies that reflect the needs and wishes of people everywhere. One step in the direction towards establishment of a harmonious world voice is a letter written by 153 Saudi scholars called "How We Can Coexist." In a move that will undoubtedly be criticized by Arab Muslims in light of recent world events, they have made an overture to the West that calls for an honest dialogue and exchange of ideas with a focus on reconciliation. Every such effort needs to be embraced.

I am writing in support of the letter, "How We Can Coexist." It is not because I am aligned with all the views of the signatories—what need is there for honest dialogue if we all agree-—but because they present a call for grassroots recognition of the humanity our two cultures share. I support it because it extends a tentative hand across the "Gulf of Misunderstanding" that separates Saudi people from the West—also known as the U.S.A. I have no illusions about the extended hand—I know that it will occasionally strike at those who respond to its invitation (as will we). We have too much history of mistrust and pain that must be reconciled before the hand can become steady. This work cannot be accomplished overnight or by magic incantation. G.W. Bush told Americans that he was involving us in a long, long war against terrorism. I say we, the people, should involve ourselves in a long, long construction project—to build a solid foundation for enduring peace.

I came to understand recently that peace was not an absolute goal. There is an unacceptable form of peace—the peace, for example, that would have been imposed by Adolph Hitler had he succeeded with his global plan. We, the people, must reject the idea of peace through force, power and subjugation and work together for a just, moral and ethical peace where every human’s rights are honored. The chance to reach this goal is another reason why I embrace the letter "How We Can Coexist."

I support the letter because it sets forth a genuine desire to establish sincere and open dialogue as our last best chance to live, rather than merely survive in fear. We must form a coalition of like-minded hearts and commit ourselves to forming a plan of action so that government policies worldwide reflect our united goal of harmonious coexistence in a world fit for our children.

Finally, I support the basic premises of "How We Can Coexist" and the population it represents because, while there are biases, animosity, injured pride and misconceptions, there is also an affirmative desire to disarm rather than fuel them. The signatories have accepted a difficult spiritual challenge that requires a great deal of courage and effort. Choosing to walk this path, even if steps falter, is admirable and deserves to be celebrated. I know many Americans are ready to walk down this path in fellowship with them. I respect a heartfelt call to find truth, especially when it means you might have to give up the belief that you already possess it. Truth will emerge from examination, knowledge and understanding. And the truth shall set us free.

Annette Swierzbinski

Director, The Dream House Project: Others R Us—"Building global community, creatively!"