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    In Damascus, they voted for George W. Bush

    By Tyler Golson
    Special to The Daily Star
    Saturday, December 04, 2004

    While the results of this year's American election may have liberal Democrats and much of the extended international community shaking their heads in disbelief, a surprising number of Arabs seem to have not only expected President George W. Bush's return to power but also supported it.

    Since I began teaching in Damascus six months ago, I have been continually surprised to find support and even admiration for Bush in that city, mixed in with the usual polemics about American imperialism. The presumed wildfire of anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment that has consumed much of Europe and Asia has apparently skipped over parts of the Arab world, where people often have more in common with Middle America than they do with the Middle East.

    A few days after moving into my new home in the middle class Christian quarter of old Damascus, my landlady asked me whom I preferred between the two American presidential candidates. I replied, almost in passing, that of course I was voting for John Kerry. Besides being an Ivy League-educated New Englander and the son of extremely liberal parents, I was a foreigner and a guest in a country laboring under American economic sanctions. As a guest, surely I would be expected to distance myself from my own government, which had started a pre-emptive war against Syria's neighbor, denied considerable foreign investment to the Syrian economy and branded Damascus a "supporter of terrorism."

    "I like Bush," she said, without a trace of irony. "He's a good man - a good Christian."

    Okay, I thought. This is a Christian woman, representing a tiny and often overlooked minority in a predominantly Muslim region. She probably doesn't identify as deeply with the average Syrian, doesn't feel threatened by Bush's perceived crusade against Islam. So I filed the incident away in the back of my mind and didn't hear much about U.S. politics again, apart from the occasional exchange with bored taxi drivers.

    Two months into my stay, the issue of pro-Bush Syrians suddenly re-emerged when I began teaching English classes to several dozen students. The students were, almost without exception, from the upper echelons of Damascene society: well educated, financially comfortable, with many hailing from important Syrian families involved in high-level economic and governmental decision-making.

    One afternoon I was explaining the passive tense of verbs, and I used an example that came to mind from American culture. I asked them if they knew who was nominated by the two main parties to run for president. "John Kerry was nominated by the Democratic Party, and George Bush was nominated by the Republicans," replied one of the brightest in the class, a veiled Muslim engineering student named Rahaf. "Very good," I said. "Now, who do you think will be elected?" "Bush," cried several of the students at once, smiling. Abandoning my lesson plan for the moment, but curious at this sudden display of interest in the election, I ventured: "Who do you want to win?" "Bush," said Rahaf, while a number of others nodded in solid agreement. I pressed them further for a few minutes, asking individual students why they liked Bush. The same ideas came up again and again: he is a strong leader, an honest man, and, most of all, a believer. Like the winning margin of American voters this year, these Middle Easterners related to Bush's sense of religious conviction and his confident steering of a nation and culture they admired.

    "But doesn't he scare you?" I asked finally, unable to contain my personal feelings and throwing the lesson plan out the window. "Because of Bush's ideas many people in my country think that all of you are terrorists." Rahaf and most of the others just shrugged. Maybe that was all true, they said, but he was still a good president.

    I found these same sentiments expressed almost word for word in my two other classes. In addition, some of the most articulate students expressed intense misgivings about central Democratic electoral platforms, including gun control, limitation of the death penalty and especially abortion and gay rights. Just the word "homosexual" made many of them cringe and click their tongues in that uniquely Arab way of showing disapproval. A final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I learned that more than half of the students in my advanced class, among them a third-year medical student and daughter of a Western-based diplomat, rejected the theory of evolution. "I just can't believe that we came from monkeys," she said.

    Afterwards I brought up what had happened with a fellow teacher, an American-born Muslim of Syrian descent who had taught at a number of schools in and around Damascus for years. "It's a religious thing," she explained to me, citing a particular Koranic verse that tells of God's creating man from a seed and that seed growing into Adam and Eve. "There is no room in traditional Islam, nor in traditional Syrian Catholicism, for a theory which links apes to humans." But how do you explain all of it, I asked, all the support for Bush, the social and even the scientific conservatism? They're more like the average American than I am. My colleague clicked her tongue, shrugged and agreed it was pretty strange.

    And thus I came to realize something that the Democrats could never admit: that there exists a support base for both the Republicans' domestic and foreign agenda among the very people we thought most opposed current U.S. policy. The cultural background and value systems which inform many of these young Arabs' outlook on the world mean they will always favor men like Bush over men like Kerry. The tenets of faith, family and, yes, "moral issues" determine the overall political leanings of a considerable number of the Middle East's future leaders, in rejection of Democratic stump issues like increased liberalism, internationalism and scientific progress.

    Though Democrats are often quick to criticize their opponents for seeing the issues in stark black and white, "us and them" terms, perhaps they ought to step back from their own obsession with "red" and "blue" dichotomies and recognize this nuance of Middle Eastern reality. Having a truly even-handed and practical approach to peace in the Arab world means realizing that not everyone, and certainly not all of the elites in Arab society, sympathize with the anti-American movements taking place within their own ranks, and that these heartland Arabs could prove a valuable ally in future U.S.-Arab relations.

    Tyler Golson is an English teacher in Damascus. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR

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