[FROM: Peace Corps Online:
Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Speaking Out: Speaking Out: March
13, 2002 - Using Peace Corps to Reach Out to the Islamic World
Apri 3, 2004 PCOL Exclusive:
Now, as then, without being politically pro or con, Jim Fox's words are direct, clear and challenging. He points out what needs to be faced–from the insights of having been a PCV. What is your reaction? [ed.]
Using Peace Corps to Reach Out to the Islamic World: Return to Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh and other Countries
Follow-up Article: A Terrible Mess (April 2004)
By: James Fox, RPCV
In six months the world has tumbled and turned so much it is hard to grasp the present, much less predict the future. Yet plans must be made, life goes on. Peace Corps, like institutions throughout the world must now react to daily turns of events. Peace Corps is being called to new duties.
In the initial confusion after the World Trade Center was destroyed, many Peace Corps Volunteers were pulled from their posts. For "the safety and security of our volunteers," country programs were closed down. Meanwhile Americans demanded revenge and retribution. Alliances were negotiated and the mightiest military force on the planet set its sights on one of the weakest, broken nations.
Fortunately, the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Islamic Taliban, linked to "The Terrorists," were an easy target. Unfortunately the "war" added to an already unfortunate history of dangerous anti-Islamic polarization.
Now, urgent new mandates propose that Peace Corps lend legitimacy to a new multi-agency Freedom Corps, reach out to the Islamic world and lead the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Peace Corps' 40-year history of non-political respect is being tapped for political purposes. If Peace Corps is to maintain its integrity, its fundamental principles must not be co-opted for these short-term goals.
The Freedom Corps will be debated as enabling legislation is developed. However, doubling in size, return to Islamic countries and involvement in reconstruction efforts may be executed in haste, with possibly dangerous results.
Peace Corps' long history of success and respect resulted from its strict isolation from other governmental Diplomatic, Intelligence and Military operations. The strength of Peace Corps came from the bottom up, from the strengths of individual volunteers, living and working at the local level within local cultures.
Popular perceptions are that Volunteers "teach the American way of life to the natives of less developed countries." In my experience, as volunteer and staff-member, it was the volunteers that first went to learn, that had the most successful tours. Only by living within the local culture, can one begin to understand what problems really exist and what solutions may be possible. Often we learn, far more than we teach.
The Administration calls for reaching out to the Islamic World and for using PCV's in Islamic countries to facilitate communication and understanding. Excuse me. While this attention is long over due, we have been there all along. My entire PC experience, and that of many others was in Islamic countries. We lived and worked there. We brought experiences from home, and back home. But our experiences and insights have been generally ignored.
One of my greatest frustrations has been countering the religious based propaganda that stereotypes all Moslems as "the enemy." I have hundreds of stories of how I was accepted, hosted as a guest and worked closely with my Islamic coworkers, friends and neighbors.
I used to joke that we should never have drifted into the danger-zone between Arabs and Jews. Later, I warned it was dangerous to turn our back-side to the huge Islamic world. Little could I predict where we find ourselves today. Inexcusable cultural insensitivity has left us in a position with ties back to Europe's centuries-old Christian Crusades.
Our unilateral military-enforced economic imperialism has inflamed ancient wounds and put us in a position where we have become the new colonial power, rather than democratic liberator, and trading partner. We say that we must destroy an evil force that extends into most every country on earth. Our arrogant invincibility knows no bounds, as from the safety of 10,000-feet we destroy evil-forces below, immune from retaliation.
Such naivety leaves us now open to increasing random retaliation. For individual travelers and isolated workers, the world has become a significantly more dangerous place. This fundamental change in world stability has occurred in only a few months.
I lived and worked in remote places. I traveled empty deserts and the back streets of many third world cities, day and night, never concerned for my physical safety. Never concerned, like I am in cities here at home. Now, the threat of random retaliation, anywhere in the world has become more real. It is a new factor we must deal with.
Peace Corps served in and has now been pulled out of three Islamic countries that I am familiar with, Iran, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Iran was a wonderful place to live and work in the 1960's, progressing
rapidly, perhaps too rapidly. I was surprised and shocked when the Shah
was overthrown and a religious theocracy gained control. I hear that the
average Iranian is still pro-American. In recent years, Iran has been
rapidly opening up, and I was looking forward to a return visit and normalization
of relations. Now, relations have been set back 10-years, as we prepare
plans for "nuking the evil-axis." "Terrorism" has
nothing to do with the Iranian friends I knew, lived and worked with.
They must not be victims of misguided military adventures. Peace Corps
should return as soon as possible
Afghanistan, in the sixties, was as always an isolated, barren place. Empty of resources, essentially locally governed by village tradition, I described it as "the last free place on earth." Vast empty areas made me suggest renting areas to countries wanting a place for war. After the lease was up, neighboring villages could mine the war-zone for scrap metal and surplus weaponry. Afghanistan was a forgotten area, never conquered for long, peopled by tough, ancient warrior people. Raped by the Russians, and local militia warfare, it is a country destroyed. I quietly tolerated our exploitation of their civil war, figuring that Anarchy was preferable to Taliban domination. It is now a land of occupation, ripe for Soldiers of Fortune, Arms Merchants, and Carpetbaggers.
We talk of sending Peace Corps volunteers out to lead recovery. This is premature and must be carefully reassessed. Throwing PCV's out there to band-aid war wounds and blatantly, anti-Islamic fundamentalist Christian pandering is hypocritical at best, and dangerously too little, too late. And legions of Peace Corp Volunteers can't "make it all well."
Afghanistan is still under siege, and we talk of placing naïve or experienced Peace Corps Volunteers in isolated remote locations.
This is out of the question at this time. Believe it or not, there are some really irritated people out there. Even with an occupational military presence, I expect the US, like the British, Russians and Pakistani-Taliban before, will be expelled from the Afghani homeland.
Unarmed PCV's cannot depend on non-existent local protection.
Peace Corps must be run by ex-PCV's who have learned cultural sensitivity and real-politik the hard way. PC staff must have the sensitivity to place naïve and experienced PCV's in safe productive assignments. We must not let political necessities throw thousands of sacrificial sheep into the fields and then express horror when some wolf attacks.
For "the safety and security of our volunteers," Peace Corps must never become a political tool of this or any future administration.
James is presently [March 2002] a professional Civil Engineer working in Washington State.