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Students tour Muslim world

A group of Americans sought dialogue in nine countries, hoping to improve Western-Islamic relations.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2007

What do ordinary people in the Muslim world think about relations with the West? Where do they stand in the struggle within Islam? Who are the role models for young Muslims? How are their religious identities being shaped, and by whom?

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With the future of the United States and the Muslim world linked more closely (and painfully) than ever, a professor and four young Americans headed off in 2006 to find answers to those questions in the mosques, madrassahs (religious schools), cafes, and universities of nine Muslim nations.

Talking with students, sheikhs, government leaders, and democratic and Islamic activists, the group encountered widespread anger and frustration, but also an eagerness to talk, even among those whom many Americans would call extremists. One remark­able outcome of the trip: a turnaround in the attitude of an Islamic ideologue whose works are influential across South Asia.

"Stereotypes I had – that Mus­lims were ignorant of what was going on in the world, that they hated Americans – were very much challenged," says Texan Hailey Woldt, a junior at Georgetown University in Washington. "I was amazed at how much they read. They listen to CNN and BBC and were very informed about American politics. And I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and open-mindedness."

Frankie Martin, a graduate of American University from Maryland, agrees. "Even the most conservative Muslims welcomed us. I thought they would not be as receptive," he says.

The students (one Muslim and three non-Muslims) were part of an "anthropological excursion" led by Prof. Akbar Ahmed, an internationally renowned Islamic scholar and anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C.

"Journey into Islam," Professor Ahmed's penetrating analysis of the lessons learned from the trip and the challenges they pose for the US, will be published in June by Brookings Institution Press. Going beyond the usual discussion of "moderates vs. radicals," his book explores the history and changing fortunes of three major religious groupings vying for influence within Islam: the modernizers, the mystics (who support getting along with other faiths), and the orthodox traditionalists (who are gaining influence through the Islamic resurgence).

"It's vital for Americans to understand the nuances and complexities of Muslim society in order to formulate a foreign policy that is effective," Ahmed says.

Anti-Americanism has spread in the Muslim world even as American Muslims see signs of growing "Islamophobia" in the US. The young people who signed on for the trip were personally committed to finding ways to cut through such depressing news and improve understanding.

Mr. Martin's family was living in Kenya when the US Embassy there was bombed in 1998, spurring his need "to figure out what was going on." Hadia Mubarak, a Muslim American of Syrian-Jordanian background, hoped "to bridge the two worlds" that she feels a part of. Ms. Woldt felt it was "the duty of my generation to understand and do something about [the situation]."

What most surprised the students was the strong consensus they found in every country visited – from Turkey to Indonesia – on what people saw as "the No. 1 problem facing the Muslim world." In every case, the answer was "Western misperceptions of Islam."