Obama and the Dialogue of Civilizations

President Barack Obama's June 4th speech in Cairo will be one of the most important of his presidency.

The success or failure of Obama's presidency may well depend on his actions in the Muslim world, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan where he has recently committed thousands of additional American troops and billions of dollars. Outside the "Af-Pak" theater, the President and the country face major challenges including violent conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, Palestine and Kashmir, and lingering questions about Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Given these challenges, what can the President say that will make his Cairo speech a success? I believe an extensive trip I took through the Muslim world in 2006 with Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, can yield some answers.

My journey began in a 2005 college class called "Clash or Dialogue of Civilizations" taught by Professor Ahmed. In it we debated some of the world's big ideas. Were the Islamic World and the West destined to clash, as Samuel Huntington had famously written, or was there an alternative paradigm that could be adopted?

The concept of the "Dialogue of Civilizations" had gained prominence in a 1998 United Nations speech by Iran's then-President, Mohammad Khatami. Noting that cultural exchanges of art and literature had occurred for thousands of years among very different peoples, Khatami suggested that the process could be amplified in the 21st Century.

The United Nations eagerly adopted Khatami's idea, declared 2001 the "Year of the Dialogue Among Civilizations," and sought to promote better understanding through conferences and cultural exchange.

Today, the irony of choosing that year is lost on no one. The 9/11 attacks pushed the planet in the opposite direction. Instead of dialogue, proponents of clash had spoken. Their version of human events took center stage.

As a college student deeply concerned at the violence I was seeing, the "Dialogue of Civilizations" concept intrigued me. I luckily was given the opportunity to test its feasibility by conducting fieldwork in the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia. I met people from all levels of society, from rural madrassa students to politicians like Pakistan's then-President Pervez Musharraf.

Our team distributed surveys in nine Muslim countries in a scientific study to gauge popular opinion. One of the questions we asked was "what is the greatest threat to the Muslim world?" In each country, the most common answer was: "American negative perceptions of Islam."

To be sure, Muslims are frustrated by many things. Not only conflicts with the United States, but internal problems like poverty, corrupt government, and religious extremism. But our surveys revealed a common and persistent fear that, even if they were able to tackle these internal problems, Muslims would still face a hostile American public that opposes them simply for being Muslim.

Many Muslims wonder, if Americans all share the hostility found in some Western media, which is broadcast globally via satellite, what hope is there? Indeed, this line of thought sounded familiar to me because I had heard similar sentiments in my own country about Muslims.

This perception gap means that even if political or military conflicts like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are resolved, this underlying distrust and hostility would remain.

We need a new lexicon, a new phrase that Obama can use to define a new age. If "War on Terror" could capture the public imagination, then so too can "Dialogue of Civilizations."

The years of clash have left many Muslims feeling that their religion itself is under attack, which in turns fuels further extremism. This feeling, however, does not preclude our chances for dialogue. Everywhere I went during my fieldwork, I was welcomed eagerly and hospitably by nearly everyone I met, who were eager, if not desperate, to talk.

"Dialogue of Civilizations" is not meant to be a "kumbaya" philosophy for the President, but a real strategy to combat anti-Americanism and win allies. The President's use of the phrase should be followed by action including reform of U.S. visa policy to bring more people from Muslim countries to the United States, programs to encourage American students to study abroad, and more vigorous public diplomacy to bring our diplomats out of their embassy fortresses and interact with Muslims where they live.

But the Dialogue is more than just a matter of international diplomacy. There are many things that ordinary citizens can do, the most important of which being promoting simple education. For the past year I have been traveling around the United States with Professor Ahmed on a follow-up project to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America, keeping in mind what Muslims abroad believed to be the "greatest threat" to the Muslim world. We've been to over seventy five cities and over one hundred American mosques.

Our theatrical documentary, Journey into America, will premiere at the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) Convention in Washington DC at the Washington Convention Center this July 4th at 9PM. ISNA is the largest Islamic organization in the US and hosts conventions attended by thousands every year. The film will be launched by luminaries including America's first Muslim Congressman, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, ISNA's president Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Imam Mohammed Magid of the ADAMS center in Northern Virginia, who Time magazine called the "American imam."

We hope this film will help improve relations and jump-start the Dialogue of Civilizations in the United States. The more bridges we are able to build the better all of us will be.

Muslims aren't expecting President Obama to solve all of their political problems. But in Egypt the President can allay their darkest (and most common) fears by organizing his administration around an optimistic big idea. It is time to embrace the Dialogue of Civilizations.