NEW YORK – 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 emphasized the importance of embarking on a new chapter in relations between the United States 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 September 11, 2001. Washington Post/ABC News polls from 2006, for example, found that nearly half of Americans regard Islam “unfavorably,” while one in four admits to prejudicial feelings against Muslims.
American views of the Muslim world are so colored 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.