The Middle East remains a complex area, and understanding the region requires years of study and a determined effort to grasp the cultures.
Just being able to identify the nations of which the region is comprised, speaking one of the languages or studying the history will not prepare an individual to enter into successful cross-cultural communication.
Only cultural immersion will ultimately suffice for the promotion of intercultural understanding.
And when a commentator or negotiator focuses on just one conflict or one dimension of a problem, he/she is shortchanging the depth of the problem and the complexity of the region.
Worse yet, attempting to simplify the rectification of mistrust and misunderstanding between groups of Christians and Muslims through mere involvement in common endeavors is simply extreme naiveté.
To illustrate, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has received much attention for years. Commentators and visitors to Israel rail against either the Jews or the Palestinians for their maltreatment of the opponent. Little, however, is said about the longtime mistreatment or mistrust of the Palestinians among Arabs. Many of the Palestinians have lived under abominable circumstances or discrimination in a number of Arab countries. Some Arab countries seem to fear the Palestinians.
The Palestinian-Israeli problem extends far beyond the obvious two sides most often identified and discussed.
The Christian-Muslim conflict has many dimensions. Most often, both sides emphasize the differences in theology and propose to overcome the differences through public and private discourse.
Such a proposal has merit, but falls far short of what is needed. Discourse alone will not ultimately heal wounds or improve interreligious relations. The politicization of both religions must be addressed before any real progress toward reconciliation between the two faiths can be made.
Misunderstandings between the two religions in the Middle East region have existed for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Greater understanding between the two faiths will not occur in the West with any speed. A depth of commitment and genuine communication are necessary before such understanding can evolve.
The Shiite-Sunni differences hold extreme importance for the Middle East. The lack of trust between the two sects remains a tremendous barrier to possible Middle East peace.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq may have added to the problem.
The complex social structures of the countries of which the Middle East region is comprised hinder, and may even prevent, cultural or political unification as the West thinks of unification.
Each of the national cultures boasts numerous subcultures, many of which think and act very independently.
Superimposed on the web of cultures and subcultures is the history of colonialism and the tendency of citizens of the region to harken back to the past as well as focusing on the present in considering possible solutions to problems. The basic thought patterns may be one area in which the citizens of the various Middle East countries have a commonality; even that commonality can be expressed in a variety of ways.
The West needs to view the Middle East region as a vast array of political, cultural and religious entities and determine to interact with those entities as single units. Only by thinking much more broadly and less Western-oriented can the U.S. or any other Western power hope to develop any long-lasting influence in the region.
Franklin T. Burroughs received his Ed.D. in Middle East Studies and Comparative Education from UCLA. He lived and worked in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon for 15 years and served as a liaison between the then-shah of Iran and President Jummy Carter. He has published a memoir, "The Pepper Tree Kingdom." He lives in Walnut Creek.