Crowd fills church for Afghanistan discussion

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The Nov. 3 "Day of Discussion" at Hood River Valley Christian Church attracted more than 400 people to hear college professors, Muslims and a former politician lead panel discussions on a range of topics related to current events.

The crowd spilled from the packed sanctuary into the church foyer, where attendees watched the program via a live video feed.

Professors Jon Mandaville of Portland State University and Laurie Mercier of Washington State University/Vancouver gave historical perspectives on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to, in Mercier's words, the "striking parallels" between U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and the opening days of the Vietnam War.

"It's depressing to be a historian in these times," Mercier said, "because we are once again reminded that we have learned nothing" from history.

Highlight of the morning panel, "Why Do They Hate Us," was Lewis & Clark College professor Zaher Wahab, an Afghan who has lived in Portland for 30 years. Though he has brought some of his family to live with him -- including two nieces and a nephew whose father (Wahab's brother) was killed by the Soviets in 1979 -- his mother and some siblings still live in Afghanistan and Wahab has visited the country twice this year, most recently in June.

"It is very painful for me to talk about this," he said. A photo exhibit set up in a room of the church featured many photos of people he knew -- some, even, of his family. "One is the grave of my father," he said.

Wahab described his country and the people of Afghanistan in stark terms.

"One of the most common sights in Afghanistan is beggars and people missing limbs," he said. "People looking half their size, but also twice their age." Wahab said he enjoyed the drive up the Gorge, and got to thinking about roads as he traveled along I-84.

"In the whole country of Afghanistan," he said, "there is not even a mile of paved road."

Wahab spoke soberly about the anti-Taliban forces the U.S. is now alligning itself with. "(These are) some of the people who committed some of the worst crimes against humanity," he said, referring to the civil war in Afghanistan which has been raging for 20 years.

"If we want to stop terrorism, we need to address the root causes of terrorism," he said, like poverty, oppression and disease.

Wahab encouraged people to explore alternative media for a broader perspective on current events, saying that there is a "media blackout" about what's really going on.

"This is a holocaust," he said. Wahab got a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd. During a question-and-answer period, he added, "A crime was committed on Sept. 11. You don't answer to a crime with a war."

A panel called "The Religion of Islam" followed, with three panelists -- including Intisar Azzuz, president of the American-Muslim Council -- giving a primer on the second largest religion in the world.

Azzuz, a native of Libya, spoke of "all the Sept. 11ths in my life" -- referring to other terrorist attacks in the name of Islam that have affected her personally.

"As a powerful country, as an educated country, we need to seek knowledge, seek information, reach out and try to solve this," she said.

After a break for lunch -- which consisted of a menu of Middle Eastern food cooked by community members the day before at Mt. Hood Towne Hall and offered for free -- former three-term U.S. congresswoman Elizabeth Furse gave the keynote address.

"As long as we put all our resources into the military," she said, "then we will have a military response to every crisis. What we sow, so shall we reap." Furse encouraged people to get active.

"Do not for a minute think you are not able to influence" politics, she said. She told people to get involved, take a stand, write letters.

"Well, okay, write letters and then fax them," she said, eliciting wry laughter from the crowd at her reference to the current shut-down in mail delivery in Washington, D.C.

Furse, who grew up in South Africa, said citizen involvement absolutely makes a difference. "I lived in a country where Nelson Mandela became president," she said. "That is extraordinary."

The final panel featured a discussion about the U.S. arming of the Middle East and the nature of terrorism. Peter Bergel, founding editor of the Oregon Peaceworker newspaper, spoke about the role of peacemaking in our "new world."

When the day's event wrapped up, the crowd gave the organizers a standing ovation.

"That was nice," said Mark Nykanen, who had helped spearhead the forum. He was quick to commend Tina Castanares, who served as moderator.

"I think she helped establish such a respectful tone," Nykanen said. "Even people that disagreed, disagreed respectfully." He said many of the panelists told him how impressed they were with the organization of the event and with the large crowd.

"I think it's gratifying as a speaker to show up and see there's not a parking space to be had," he said.

Reaction from attendees also was positive.

"I thought it was very beneficial for the community in terms of having an educated perspective on what's going on," said Leith Gaines, who also was impressed by the "emotional speakers" on the Islam panel. "I was very impressed by the quality level of the event. It was a very powerful day."

Lucille Wyers, a 62-year resident of Hood River, was equally impressed.

"It was almost overwhelming that there were that many people there," she said, adding that attendees came from Hood River and around the Gorge, but also from farther away. "I spoke to one lady who came up from Lincoln City for it," she said. "I think it was a good starting point. If people in the community get together we could really do something."

Attendee John Laptad called the day "beyond useful."

"I started to feel like finally I'm starting to hear the truth," he said. "It put a whole new yeast into the brew."

Videotapes of the "Day of Discussion" are available at the Hood River County Library and through Community Ed. Call 386-2055 for information.

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