Leaders are the problem
"I'm here to tell you, peace is the only way."
Former Egyptian First Lady Jehan Sadat left no doubt to her purpose as she visited Storm Lake to deliver the annual American Heritage Lecture at Buena Vista University Friday night.
Peace was on Madame Sadat's mind, and she was in no mood to mince words.
Sadat, who carries on the work of her late husband, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, is among the world's leading voices for peace, equality and humanitarian issues. In a panel discussion with students Friday afternoon, she confided that she aches to see an end to warfare in her lifetime.
She was critical of the Bush Administration's efforts in that direction.
"Bush gave Israel more time to destroy Lebanon, instead of saying that the violence has to stop.
"I would like to defend the United States' actions, but I cannot," she related passionately. "Bush did not get rid of Hezbollah, and he will not. Violence breeds violence, and all this will do is breed more terrorists. We need peace leaders. We need to think of a future generation instead of ourselves."
She also spoke out against the American entertainment industry. Television and movies, she said, are training young people in the ways of violence, crime and greed.
In a time of historic upheaval in the middle east, BVU leaders chose to bring in a lecturer who has seen eras of war and peace in that region first-hand to deliver the 2006 lecture, which, like all installments in the series, is designed to build a dialogue on the subject of American freedoms.
For Sadat, the experience at BVU brought back fond memories.
She had missed out on advanced education, having married the Egyptian revolutionary Sadat two months before her 16th birthday. At age 40, she decided to enroll in university - and found herself competing with her own three daughters who were being educated on the same campus. "I was a wife, mother, First Lady, and at the same time, I wanted to set an example to young people like my daughters," she said with one of the few smiles to permeate her otherwise serious message. "I did - I was better than them."
Over and over again, Sadat stressed what she sees as the one critical action that can achieve world peace today - a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. "I love them both," she said. She feels an agreement would require the Israelis to pull out of the controversial occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
She said that Egypt had appealed to the U.S. years ago to bring Osama bin Laden and others who have since emerged as terrorism leaders to trial for the threats that they have posed to world society. "You didn't listen to us. It is very, very sad to see these people still going around the world, free."
Not all the opposition in Iraq is from terrorists, she warned - some simply do not welcome the U.S. as an occupying force in their homeland.
"Hatred is growing, growing, growing. If we can put an end to the hate between Palestine and Israel, then democracy will prevail, believe me. And the United States of America, the world's only remaining superpower, is the only one who can do it," Sadat said.
If peace with Israel can be had, terrorists will be defused, as they will have lost their root excuse of hate, she told students, although she feels that there will always be some terrorism in the world.
Sadat refuses to allow Islamic beliefs to be blamed for the extremist violence. "Islam is a very good religion - for love, not revenge and retaliation," she said. "The Islam in Iran for some is fanatical - they do not understand their religion. All religions are the same, they encourage you to be good, to be honest. It is not Islam, it is the leaders who are using Islam," she said of the violence.
She was surprised at recent controversial comments by Pope Benedict , quoting a medieval ruler who said Muhammad's innovations were "evil and inhuman."
"It was a quotation from the Middle Ages - why say it now?" Although she felt the Pope meant no harm, "It was not the right thing to say... each one of us has to respect our own religion, and respect all others."
Living half the year as a lecturer at the University of Maryland and the rest in Cairo with her family and her humanitarian causes, Sadat said she has come to know America well.
She spoke of learning to shop at Safeway and cook her own meals, something that was a foreign experience to a woman from a fairly privileged upbringing in Upper Egypt who had been First Lady of the middle east's largest nation since 1970.
"I always talk about the good interests of the United States in the middle east. You are a people who expect the best of people, and never think that the other side is lying. You are sincere about giving freedom to the people," she said. She finds Americans to be kind neighbors. She bristled when asked about conspiracy theories that blame U.S. racism for the 9/11 terrorist tragedies.
"That's ridiculous - really ridiculous. There are people who will tell you that 9/11 was an American act to justify going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan." To audience murmurs of approval, she added, "There are ignorant people everywhere."
Peace is impossible without open negotiation, she stressed, citing her husband's courage to seek talks with Israel, with the assistance of then-President Jimmy Carter, who is still remembered in the middle east for his efforts, she said.
"If you are responsible for a country, you have to sit and negotiate," Sadat said. "It was much more difficult when my husband did it 27 years ago than it would be to do today.
"If you negotiate, you will live in peace. Why are they waiting?" she said of current world leaders. "What are they waiting for?"
Education is also a key for the success of all the world's societies, Sadat told students.
Despite the efforts she pioneered, less than half the women in Egypt are literate, she said, compared to almost three-fourths of the men who can read.
"This is an obstacle. We have free education, but we have a shortage of schools. We are trying to build more every year, but it still is not enough."
Madame Sadat established the Talla Society, a group aimed to emancipate women and make them more self-efficient. With the help of volunteers, she sought out illiterate peasant women living in poor villages and taught them, and helped them to develop products they could produce and sell in order to achieve better lives for their families.
"I can't tell you the changes they went through," she said of these women. "This is the way to help women - train them for better jobs. They will be ready for it."
As more women are educated and take positions of power around the world, Sadat expects that they will help to lead the fight against the slaughter of innocents.
She herself faced great criticism while her husband was in office. "In the whole of the middle east, people had never seen a wife of a president working. I had many critics... but I did not stop."
Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, three years after he participated in the Camp David Accords peace agreement. His wife never stepped back from her activism.
When she first came to the United States in the 1970s, she expected that women here would have everything. What she found then, and still finds today, is that this is surprisingly not true. "There are no equal rights for equal pay in many states still today, for women with the same training doing the same jobs as men."
In a sense, America has too much freedom, Sadat said, and it shows in behavior. "I am not saying that you should control people, but with freedom there must also be principals given for the young generation."
It is sometimes difficult for Americans to grasp why the middle east is not quick to adopt its ways of life, she adds. "We have our own culture, our traditions that we respect. We do not take anything blindly from the west. If it helps us, we will use it, but if it does not, we do not need it."
What can Iowans do to contribute to world well-being?
They should push their Congressional representatives to influence the president, Sadat said in a press conference shortly after her arrival in Storm Lake. "You are the only ones who can do it. If you want to bring peace in the middle east, you can... nothing is impossible."
While she feels the U.S. war on terrorism is a necessary one, she said that President Bush is so preoccupied with that effort that he is ignoring other world problems. "He could do something about it, but it seems like he doesn't have the time for it," she told the media.
As for the war on terror, she said that it will take some years before the world can adequately judge the actions that Bush has taken
For the young adults at BVU, Sadat feels they need to see problems personally. While teaching at the University of Cairo, she took her students to see people who were suffering - downtrodden women, orphaned children and others.
The violence will end only when nations are willing to talk instead of go to war, she feels.
"It is a problem with the leaders, not the people."
As for Sadat, she continues to be an active voice on many fronts around the world. She continues with her university lecturing and is writing a second book, and enjoys her time with her great-grandchildren.
"My life is very full and happy, except for one thing - I want my husband's dream of a lasting peace in the middle east to be realized."