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Syrian-American seeks to unite faiths
“I became like this with Annette,” Mrs. Atassi said, crossing two fingers. “This is how I came to love America. I lived with an American family. We cooked together. We laughed together.”
Mrs. Atassi also discovered what she called “similarities between Islam and the American conservative movement, especially concerning morality, family, religion and [opposition to] abortion.”
She soon got a scholarship for postgraduate studies in international relations and public diplomacy at Georgetown University, which brought her to Washington where she later worked for the Voice of America and for the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. She became an American citizen, met her husband, Charif Khanji, a Lebanese-American with a doctorate in computer sciences, and had two children, a boy, Hadi, and a girl, Aya.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mrs. Atassi decided she had to do something to combat the clash of cultures and explain Arabs to Americans and Americans to Arabs.
“There was a big shift in public opinion [about Arabs]. It was like a big earthquake,” she said.
She realized that Arabs knew as little about Americans as they did about them.
“Many Arabs know nothing about American culture, the rule of law, the friendliness of the people,” Mrs. Atassi said, adding that they get most of their image of Americans from violent Hollywood movies.
Americans, likewise, think Arabs “ride camels and only care about oil,” she said.
Mrs. Atassi knew she had to explain to Americans that the vast majority of Muslims are not obsessed with blowing them up. Her disgust was evident when she talked about Osama bin Laden or the medieval-minded Taliban movement in Afghanistan.
“They don’t speak for the vast majority of Arabs. They only speak for themselves,” she said.
She makes no excuses for Islamic practices in some countries where women are treated like chattel, and she condemns the religious extremism in the Arab world. Those misogynistic laws are based on cultural tradition, not on the Koran, she said.
“Religion is a personal thing, and you should not impose it in political life,” she said.
Mrs. Atassi lectures at interfaith forums and has appeared on the ABC television network, the British Broadcasting Corp. and on French TV to talk about Arab issues. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair just invited her to address an interfaith conference in London in September.
“I want to tell people about Islam,” Mrs. Atassi added. “Let’s build bridges.”
About the Author
James Morrison joined the The Washington Times in 1983 as a local reporter covering Alexandria, Va. A year later, he was assigned to open a Times bureau in Canada. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Morrison was The Washington Times reporter in London, covering Britain, Western Europe and NATO issues. After returning to Washington, he served as an assistant foreign editor ...
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