Cross-cultural exchanges can strengthen ties

Aida Moradi Ahani's parents encouraged her to overcome limitations imposed on Iranian citizens — particularly women. She seized an opportunity last month to use a valid visa to travel to Oysterville, as the Trump administration tussled with federal courts in an effort to block all citizens from several Muslim-majority nations from coming to the U.S.

Iranian writer Aida Moradi Ahani’s determined effort to come to the U.S. for a writing residency in Oysterville is a perfect example of precisely why we should remain engaged with all the rest of the world, including nations about which we have valid misgivings.

As described in a story Friday, Moradi Ahani was fully authorized by both the U.S. and Iranian governments to come here for a month of work on her second novel, along with conversations and connection-building with American writers. President Donald Trump’s ban on all travel from Iran and several other Muslim-majority nations upended her plans. Then, when a Seattle judge temporarily blocked the Trump ban, Moradi Ahani wasted no time in jumping on a plane for the long, multileg flight from Tehran to the outer coast of Washington state.

Such audacity is always to be commended and bodes well for her continuing success as a creative writer, for which courage is an essential trait.

Trump has now revised his travel ban, removing our ally Iraq, but reimposing it on citizens from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya.

Bunching all a nation’s citizens together with its ruling government is always a bad idea. We ourselves bitterly and correctly resent it when an innocent American is held hostage or subjected to indignities in some foreign place as a form of protest against something our government has done. We expect it to be understood that individuals aren’t individually responsible for their leaders’ deeds and misdeeds.

At the same time, most of us also understand care is warranted in screening travelers, especially from nations where wars and insurrections are ongoing and where enemies of the U.S. may wish to do us harm. A blanket ban on complete nationalities, however, will alienate entire societies in ways that may be hard to overcome. Traveler screening must be smart and narrowly construed to apply to government officials, agents and those specifically identified as posing potential danger.

Our caution must not be so overblown as to prohibit all travel here by neutral and friendly foreigners, no matter where they are from. There is nothing quite so shameful and unchristian (and un-Islamic) as turning away innocents seeking shelter or to learn about our culture. Past mistakes, like internment of Japanese-Americans and our refusal to welcome some European Jewish refugees, must never be repeated.

Generations of cross-cultural exchanges — including formal efforts like the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and informal ones like the Willapa writing workshop — have strengthened our ties to the world, built alliances and dispelled false notions about one another. Such connections do not increase our risk, but diminish it. Few visit the U.S. without being impressed, enlightened and often charmed.

The benefits that accrue to us from foreigners coming here is best exemplified by the fact that repressive regimes go to considerable lengths to keep their citizens from experiencing all we have to offer. We will do well to take the opposite tack, offering our great nation’s hospitality to as many who wish to visit in a spirit of friendship.

A 2010 report by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy emphasizes this point:

“Given the strategic importance of improving America’s relationship with the Muslim world, building bridges and partnerships between citizens of the United States and of predominantly Muslim societies should be accorded the utmost policy priority. Just as U.S. leaders invested heavily following World War II in building ties between emerging leaders in the United States and those in Europe and Japan, so today we need an ambitious undertaking of similar scale and scope — drawing on the energies of governments, private corporations, philanthropic institutions, nonprofit organizations and ordinary citizens — focused on predominantly Muslim societies.”

This approach, not slamming our door, is the way to go.