“Those Peace Corps workers are spies in our country!”
As an American living in the Middle East for twenty years, I am amazed each time I hear this. Whenever I ask, “Why would you think that?” I never receive a clear, satisfactory, or understandable answer–but now, I finally have.
A North African friend explained to me that the saying, “Know your enemy!” is extremely popular throughout Arab culture in the Middle East. He said that most ordinary citizens in the street view the American government as an enemy, (regardless of whether their own governments are allies with the United States). This is both because of America’s seeming “unconditional” support for Israel, and because the United States has been involved in wars in the Middle East, or in seeming support of previous dictators in the region.
Therefore, when Peace Corps volunteers come to the Middle East, people wonder, “Why would anyone leave their own rich countries, in order to come and live in a very poor lifestyle, among us, saying they want to help us?”
Many Middle Easterners, especially those who are poor and living in rural areas, just don’t understand the idea of volunteer work. (1) (They are judging foreigners by their own standards, since they would not go to help others who were not part of their own family/religious group, or from whom they did not “want” something in return–such as information, or a natural resource.) They just don’t trust anyone; in general, Middle Eastern societies are low in trust of others. Their recent experience of colonialism increases their distrust.
When I point out, “What possible interest would the American government have in the life of your little mountain village?” I usually get vague and confusing answers that make no sense to me (being a Westerner). But now I have received an understandable answer. My local friend told me, ” They think America is studying every aspect of how they live and think in order to better know their enemy.”
What a sad case of two ships passing in the night, in terms of cultural misunderstanding!
Just to set the record straight, Peace Corps workers are NOT spies, never have been, and never will be. While they have apparently been ASKED on a couple of occasions (Bolivia and Cuba), read the link to see that they refused, and that this is NOT government policy. However, when I pointed this out to my friend, she asked me, “OK, these volunteers refused to spy, but how on earth would we be sure EVERY Peace Corps volunteer would refuse to spy?” At least now, I understand where they are coming from.
(1) 06-EuroMedJeunesse-Etude_MOROCCO.pdf (p. 7, 8, 17, 23)