Beginning Again: How America and Muslim Majority Societies Can Re-Engage

The recent controversy over Juan Williams' choice of words underscores just how little progress has been made since I sat in a packed Cairo University auditorium last June, witnessing firsthand President Barack Obama dazzle and inspire a cross section of Egyptian society.

His now famous address, titled the "New Beginning," energized Egypt and the wider region, but more than a year later, tensions between the United States and Muslim majority societies are far from eliminated. Two wars, a sputtering Middle East peace process and the continued threat of al-Qaeda inspired violence present difficult hurdles to fostering trust.

The most powerful first step leaders can take to rebuild partnership between Muslim communities and the U.S. is to resolve these acute conflicts and end terrorism.

However, leaders cannot put global engagement on hold until these complex problems are solved. In spite of these challenges, governments and civil society on all sides must take an interactive holistic approach to move the relationship forward.

Here is what we must do:
1. Engage the home team: leaders educating their own constituencies. Often times leaders on all sides view their job as speaking on behalf of their people to the other. While this type of public diplomacy remains necessary, a far more powerful approach to move U.S.-Muslim relations forward is for leaders to spend at least as much time speaking to one's own people in a way that shows empathy and respect for the other community.

2. Keep each other honest: convening a critical mass of influential journalists to form a pact on framing the "other." Punctuating the decade since 9/11 is a string of global communication catastrophes involving Muslim and Western communities. From the Danish Cartoon controversy to Park51, news media in the United States and in Muslim majority societies have often escalated public outrage, rather than informing reasonable debate. To turn this around, a group of influential journalists from the U.S. and Muslim majority societies should convene for honest facilitated conversation on how each is framing the "other." The goal of this convening is to create a set of mutually agreed upon principles for framing the "other" in reporting. Eventually, each society will have a critical mass of reporters who inform rather than incite.

3. Cooperate for the common good: creating a multi-national, multi-faith "Cooperation Corps." Citizens of Muslim majority countries and of the United States often find themselves telling the other what they are against. It is time to show the world what they are for by forming a multi-national "Cooperation Corps," since charity and service is a shared value. While the idea of young Americans spending two years serving in a developing country as a Peace Corps volunteer is familiar, the "Cooperation Corps" would include a multi-faith, multi-national group of young people who would spend a year in the U.S. and a year in a majority Muslim country serving underprivileged communities. This approach would truly favor partnership over paternalism in the area of international development.

4. Upgrade to Exchange 2.0: dramatically increasing cross-cultural communication through new media. Studies show that less than half of Americans personally know a Muslim, and even fewer citizens of Muslim majority countries have ever met an American. Studies also show that knowing someone from a group makes one less likely to harbor extreme prejudice against that group. This is why international exchange programs are so powerful, yet have limited reach by their very nature. Currently less than 1 percent of higher education students participate in such study abroad programs. Through creative use of new media platforms that percentage could be 25, 50 and eventually even 100 percent. Imagine the differences that could make in people's worldviews and respect for one another. The United Nations is leading an effort on this in partnership with diverse public and private sector leaders, including an international non-profit organization I know well: Soliya. It is time for an Exchange 2.0 approach, where young people engage in a meaningful way over social media networks, thereby dramatically increasing the touch points between cultures.

While the situation seems grim, history teaches that groups, even those who have been in conflict for centuries, can ease tensions and build trust. Today the majority of Lebanese Muslims and Christians say they have a positive opinion of the other, less than a generation after a civil war fought roughly along confessional lines. Majorities of whites and blacks in America now say relations between their groups are good only a generation after the civil rights struggle. Other examples -- in Rwanda, South Africa and Northern Ireland just to name a few -- prove that progress is possible.

Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Study. She also directs The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center. Ms. Mogahed co-authored Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think with John L. Esposito. In 2009, President Obama appointed her to serve on his Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council.

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