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U.S.: Misperceptions Between Muslims And Americans Not Likely To Improve

A recent conference in New York -- convened with the help of former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- attracted nearly 200 experts on Islam and foreign policy. Their discussion explored the religious and social aspects of Islam and their connection to perceptions of the United States in the Muslim world. One point made repeatedly by the panelists was that divisions within the Islamic world itself were clouding prospects for improving relations with the leading Western democracy.

New York, 28 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A conference on Islam and the United States last week featured a strong defense of Washington's foreign policy by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, one of the sponsors of the conference, said U.S. policy in the Middle East and toward Muslim countries in general cannot be held responsible for the extremism that led to the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Addressing nearly 200 scholars and experts on Muslim affairs at New York University, Clinton also defended current U.S. President George W. Bush in his response to the events of September.

"I strongly support the efforts of the United States and our allies in Afghanistan against Mr. Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda network and generally against terrorism. But I am also very grateful that one of the first things President Bush did after 11 September was to go to a mosque and meet with Muslim leaders, that he broke the fast of Ramadan with Muslims in the White House to make it clear that the United States has no quarrel with Islam."

His comments touched on one of the recurring themes of the conference -- the mutual misperceptions between Muslims and Americans.

A U.S.-based correspondent for the Arabic-language newspaper "Al-Hayat," Raghida Dergham, said that the social and cultural misunderstandings on both sides are largely a consequence of mutual ignorance, suspicion, and mistrust.

"The notion that Arabs and Muslims have had fundamental problems with America for what it stands [for] is really superficial and is really dead wrong. Even today as we seem disconnected, talking past one another, lost in our own reflections, the argument is not about what America is, but about what America does. Americans in their confusion must know that most Arabs and Muslims do not hate them. They do, however, have legitimate issues with American policies. And Arabs and Muslims in their anger must understand that Americans do not know them."

Among the other subjects discussed was the role of Muslim intellectuals, and how they reconcile their understanding of the Western world with traditional Islamic culture.

Muqtedar Khan, the director of international studies at Adrian College in Michigan, spoke about the contradictory perceptions many Muslims harbor about the West and the U.S. in particular.

"There are two images, two very distinct images that Muslims have of America. [Islamic philosopher] Mohammad Abdul looked at France, looked at the West, and said, 'This is Islam without Muslims.' [Ayatollah] Khomeini also lived near Paris, looked at the same country, at the same society and said: 'The West is Satan. America is the main Satan.' So, there are these two plural positions that Muslims maintain about the West. And they are, what I call, epistemologically dogmatic in the sense that you see partial truths and insist that it is the complete truth."

Islamic morality and ethics were the subject of discussion during the panel "Islam in a Modern World." Houchang Chehabi, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said that there are two norms of morality in the Islamic world -- one for the public life and one for the private life.

"In the public realm, the norms of the Islamic morality must be maintained. Take the case of Iran, the country of which I am a citizen. There's no doubt in my mind that Iran currently enjoys more political freedom than it ever did under the Shah. And yet, since it has a state that tells half the population -- women -- how to dress, it is perceived as being less modern and more repressive than under the Shah."

Another panel at the conference discussed the teachings of Islam about women. Leila Ahmed, a professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School, spoke about the very different perceptions of women's roles in Islamic societies.

"Just as if we were to ask what Christianity says about women, we'd quickly see, simply by looking across the different Christian denominations, that in fact there is a vast range of possible answers. The mosque doesn't have an equivalent role in Islam. So the different Muslim perspectives on women don't have a parallel denominational expression. Still, though, these differences are certainly there. Something of that diversity is in fact obvious if we simply observe the different ways that different Muslim governments apply Islam to women: from Saudi Arabia, which doesn't permit women to drive, to Bangladesh and Indonesia which have had women [leaders]. Clearly, very different interpretations of women are possible in Islam too."

Conference participants also spoke of how differently the process of modernization in the West is viewed in other parts of the world. In the Muslim world in particular, many said, modernization is viewed with suspicion and even hostility. And it is perceived as alien to their culture and beliefs.

Imposition of secular ideas, some participants warned, can lead to resistance. This is the case of those groups, classes, and individuals in Islamic countries which are not sharing in the modernization process and who see themselves as largely dispossessed victims. This is indeed one of the breeding grounds of extremism and terrorism, they said.

A former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, Edward Djerejian, said that when launching modernization programs, it is important to assure that the fruits of political, economic, and social development be shared by the greatest number of people possible.

"The United States should tailor its approach to each country with the understanding that we should not try to establish Western political models in many of these societies which are traditionalist in nature and have their own forms of political consultation -- for example the Majlis Ash Shura, the consultative councils. We should be promoting not a Jeffersonian model of democracy in [some Arab countries], for example, but the principle of democracy in terms of broadened political participation according to the traditional culture in which we are dealing. This is where we should place, I believe, our emphasis."

Clinton concluded the event by saying that too many Muslims throughout the world see U.S. actions as a threat to their values, economic interests, and political aspirations. Now is a critical time, he said, to work through these issues in a spirit of partnership and not become paralyzed by fear.