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Educating Americans about Muslim voices

Panoramic waterfront view of Cairo
A panoramic view of Cairo (© JasmineElias / Wiki Commons)

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has extended an open hand of friendship in his landmark Cairo speech to the Muslim world — seeking to engage Muslims with a commitment of mutual respect. No one can doubt his sincerity. From his first days in office, he has emphasised the importance of embarking on a new chapter in the relationship between the US and the world’s Muslims.


But this aspiration will remain elusive without acknowledging the sad fact that most Americans remain woefully ignorant about the basic facts of Islam, and about the broad geographic and cultural diversity of Muslim cultures.

A majority of public opinion polls taken in the last four years show that the views of Americans about Islam continue to be a casualty of the attacks of 11 Sept 2001. Washington Post/ABC News polls from 2006, for example, found that nearly half of Americans regard Islam “unfavourably,” while one in four admit to prejudicial feelings against Muslims.

American views of the Muslim world are so coloured by the conflict in the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that US citizens have no collective appreciation of the fact that most Muslims live in Asia. Or that the four countries with the largest Muslim populations — Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh — are all cultures with millennia-old histories of coexisting with other religions and cultures.

American in rally holding a placard that says 'deport all Iranians, get the hell out of my country'
Placard waver during the Iran hostage crisis — his placard also says “Release all Americans now” on its back
(by Marion S Trikosko / Wiki Commons)

A 2005 report by the US State Department’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy called for a new vision of cultural diplomacy that “can enhance US national security in subtle, wide-ranging and sustainable ways.” In 2008, a bipartisan group of American leaders — the US-Muslim Engagement Project — convened by Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute, issued a report calling for a new direction for US relations with the Muslim world. A primary goal of this effort would be “to improve mutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims around the world”.

It is time for US citizens to commit themselves to working alongside the Obama administration to turn a new leaf in relations with the Muslim world. The first step is to make a concerted effort to become better educated about the multifaceted societies that comprise the one billion-strong Muslim population throughout the world.

Power of culture

The power of culture resides in its ability to transform perceptions. From 5 to 14 June 2009, New Yorkers are experiencing the rich diversity of Muslim cultures through a city-wide initiative, entitled “Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas.” More than 300 artists, writers, performers, and scholars from more than 25 countries, including the US, are gathering for this unprecedented festival and conference.

Example of mirror writing in Islamic calligraphy
(public domain / wiki commons)
Presentations include a dizzying variety of artistic forms from the Muslim world, ranging from the traditional (calligraphy, Sufi devotional voices) to the contemporary (video installations, avant-garde Indonesian theater, Arabic hip-hop). A companion policy conference has attracted scholars and artists from around the world exploring the relationship between cultural practice and public policy and suggesting new directions for cultural diplomacy. A critical goal of this project is to help break stereotypes and create a more nuanced understanding of Muslim societies.

Despite our enthusiasm for the possibilities of what this initiative can do to broaden understanding, a performance, a film, or an art exhibition cannot find solutions to all of the problems that divide Americans and the Muslim world. The current distance is rooted as much in ignorance as in hard political issues, many of which go beyond what arts and culture can realistically address.

However, cultural diplomacy and initiatives such as “Muslim Voices” can open the door to the reality of the Muslim world as a rich space for world-class artistic production. That, in turn, can encourage an interest in addressing the harder political issues with respect and a sense of equity.

For too long, the differences between the US and the Muslim world have been framed not in terms of diversity, but as the foundations of a permanent global conflict. But when people participate in an aesthetic experience that both addresses and transcends a particular culture, perceptions are bound to change.

Obama holding some papers
Obama confers about the Cairo speech with Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis
McDonough (right) and speechwriter Ben Rhodes on Air Force One en route to Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza, source:

America has reached a pivotal moment in its national and global history, with new hopes for intercultural exchange, dialogue, and mutual understanding. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say that theirs will be an age of “smart power” that will effectively use all tools of diplomacy at their disposal, including cultural diplomacy.

The US must focus once again on the arts as a meaningful way to promote stronger cultural engagement and, ultimately, to find new channels of communication with the Muslim world. Doing so will show that relations need not be defined only through political conflict. Rather, there is now an opportunity to define connections between America and the Muslim world by sharing the richness and complexity of Muslim artistic expressions — as a vital step in finding grounds for mutual respect. Favicon

Vishakha N Desai is president of the Asia Society which will be holding its first Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in Kuala Lumpur from 20 to 22 Nov 2009. Karen Brooks Hopkins is president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mustapha Tlili is founder and director of the Center for Dialogues: Islamic World-US-The West at New York University.

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7 Responses to “Educating Americans about Muslim voices”

  1. Karcy says:

    The biggest problem with Westerners trying to comprehend Islam is that they have no Islamic culture to base their perceptions on, except the Quran. And it is a scary book. Like the Bible, the earliest parts are some of the bloodiest. I know a Catholic American friend who could not go past the second Surah. We Malaysian non-Muslims, like Obama, grew up listening to the azan at dawn and dusk. Islam is part of our culture, but not for Protestant-Puritan America.

    Secondly, there is a pre-Islamic culture of misogyny prevalent among some Muslims in America which is taken for being Islamic. Honour killing happens from time to time and my same friend once witnessed a family who attempted to lighten the punishment of their daughter’s murderer. This feeds the colonially-inclined argument that Muslims ‘do not treat their women right’.

    Given these issues things like Islamic art will only have a limited ability to convince others. Have all the beauty of Catholic cathedrals convinced a Protestant that they ought not to be smashed, or persuade non-theists that the Church hand-in-hand brought Europe out of the dark ages?

    It is for this reason that organizations like SIS must exist as proof that the Islamic world is not backwards. Calligraphy can only convince someone so much; people are convinced by the convictions of other people. Sadly, the fact that SIS is being attacked in their own country as being ‘deviant’ only feeds the Western perception that ‘true Islam’ is a violent, bloody and reactionary religion.

  2. Karcy says:

    To the comments editor: sorry, there was a typo in my last comment. The Church hand-in-hand brought Europe *into* the Dark Ages.

  3. aitze says:

    A majority of public opinion polls taken in the last four years show that the views of Iraqis about Christianity continue to be a casualty of the Father and Son attacks on Iraq. Baghdad Post/Iraqi News polls from 2006, for example, found that nearly half of Iraqis regard Christianity “unfavourably,” while one in four admit to prejudicial feelings against Americans.

  4. emkay says:


    According to some sources, Islam is the fastest spreading religion in the West and the Americas and is predicted to be the second largest in a few years time.

    Islam ruled the Iberian peninsula for 714 years and until today you can still see the monuments they left behind though you might not meet any Muslim anywhere there. Christians and Jews lived and flourished under the Muslims in Spain. The Jews even had their Golden Age during their sojourn under Muslim Spain.

    (Watch “Islam, Empire of Faith” for a balance view of Islam on PBS.)

    The Muslims were finally driven out of Spain by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella, under whose rule there were forced conversions of the people (who were deemed to be heretics) to Christianity and these were recorded in the so-called, “Secret Files of the Spanish Inquisition”.

    I sincerely urge everyone interested to view these videos on YouTube.

    Compare these two episodes of human history and make your own conclusion.

    Thank you.

  5. james au says:

    Islam is not a problem to anyone. Islam is a problem when there is an Islamic problem.

  6. megabigBLUR says:

    My two American co-workers thought Al-Jazeera was some kind of terrorist propaganda website. :roll eyes:

  7. daniel says:

    This article, albeit written by three people is … empty optimism. A solution to the widening distance between the [Muslim world] and the western world needs to consider how both sides perceive each other, and in terms of how effectively art can reach either side is questionable. Art to many is a leisure, secondary to issues that really do matter. What we need is a respectable Islamic leader both sides can connect with. At the moment, the Islamic figures who appear often in the media are very doubtful and untrustworthy people. Art has its use, but a long-term solution has to be more people-oriented.

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