One of the most important strategic challenges facing the United States is placing its relations with predominantly Muslim societies on sounder footing. Too often in recent years, particularly since the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, these relations have been dominated by fear and mutual recriminations. As President Obama articulated in his Cairo address, there is much to be done if we are to get this vital relationship right: from eliminating the widely held perception among many Muslims that the United States is at war with Islam, to resolving the many violent and divisive conflicts now roiling the Muslim world in which the United States is often deeply embroiled, to addressing the very real developmental challenges facing many predominantly Muslim societies and improving how these societies are governed. But building more bridges and partnerships between citizens of the United States and of predominantly Muslim societies may be the most vital.
An important dimension of the problem is the lack of knowledge and depth of mutual misunderstanding we possess about one another. In repeated Gallup polls since 9/11, when asked what they most admire about Muslims and Islam, a majority of Americans have responded either “don’t know” or “nothing.” The majority of Americans also say they do not know much about Islam, and only about half know a Muslim personally. In contrast, most Muslims do express admiration for some aspects of the West, citing technology and democracy most often, but many disapprove of U.S. foreign policy and very few have ever met an American. What this data bears out is that we simply do not know enough about one another.