I was recently in the Middle East, in particular Jordan and Egypt. Over a seven day period I had numerous conversations with college students and administrators that often led to the thorny issue of what Americans think of Muslims and the Muslim world.
The message that came across to me loud and clear was that what the Muslim people wanted most from the United States was respect and understanding, rather than what they perceived to be false impressions, cruel stereotypes and group condemnation.
They were overjoyed with the election of Barack Obama and the end of the Bush/Cheney regime. But they wanted more than just a change of administrations; they wanted to see a new period of changed perceptions and genuine goodwill.
Many of the students and faculty were convinced that Americans saw all Muslims as terrorists and had little respect for the religious beliefs and customs of the Middle Eastern world. Although they embraced much of our popular culture from KFC to Hollywood movie mayhem, they wanted Americans to see them as good people, normal people, friendly people. My hosts never missed an opportunity to drive home examples of the civilized Arab world- the countless contributions to mathematics, science, and literature that originated in this the cradle of civilization.
This theme of respect and understanding has been central to the Middle East pysche for years, if not generations, and has often been the greatest obstacle to achieving peace agreements and reducing the terrorist threat. From the perspective of my hosts, if Americans could see the Muslim people as no different than other people, many of the thorny issues of the region could begin to move toward resolution.
But from the American point of view, it is difficult for visitors to this region to move past the outward image of Muslims – the head scarfs and burqas on women, the dominance of males in the social structure, the rigid rules of Islam and the lack of a religious reform movement to replace the jihadist philosophy.
Respect and understanding of the Muslim world will only come with greater contacts between everyday people from this country and the Middle East. This may sound like some idealistic bromide, but barriers that separate people are only broken down when people talk to each other and accept each other as equals, despite their differences.