Students tour Muslim world
A group of Americans sought dialogue in nine countries, hoping to improve Western-Islamic relations.
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"They think Americans just don't care [about understanding Islam] and think all Muslims are evil or terrorists," Martin says. "They say, 'We get your media and see how you view Islam, but you don't get our media.' "Skip to next paragraph
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Wherever the group traveled, adds Jonathan Hayden, a University of Alabama graduate and assistant to Ahmed, "Fox News was on, and you'd see Ann Coulter calling people 'ragheads' over and over, or Glenn Beck on CNN."
The sense that they are not understood – or being deliberately misrepresented and maligned in Western media – intensifies frustrations Muslims already feel over the failings of their own governments and the impact of Western-style globalization.
Many Muslims feel threatened
"Many see a corrosion of their own society and feel very threatened," Woldt says. For example, young women they met in Damascus were happy that Syria had recently gotten cellphone service and Internet access. But they also were upset about children now glued to video games and young men sending pornographic images via cellphones.
The widespread sense that Islam is under siege and being wrongly defined by Westerners also showed up in questionnaires the group gave to youths in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Qatar, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (Egypt was the ninth country visited.)
Asked to identify their current role models, young people in the four Arab countries overwhelmingly chose Amr Khaled, a popular Egyptian TV preacher who presents a more modern but "proper image" of Islam. (An appendix in "Journey into Islam" elaborates on the historical and contemporary role models young people identified in each country.)
While role models varied by region, youths in most countries often chose conservative leaders who, they said, "stand up for Islam" against the West – such as Islamic scholar Yusuf Qaradawi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Hayden recalls a class of 50 young women in Indonesia, in which 65 percent listed names like Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khomenei, and Mr. Ahmadinejad among their heroes, yet also said they were in favor of dialogue with America.
"There is a large group of people right on the edge," Hayden adds. "They want dialogue but feel they are under attack. The question is which way they are going to lean in the future."
To the travelers, it seemed clear that the answer depends on improving communication between Americans and ordinary Muslims to counter the many misperceptions on both sides.
Although they have access to US media, Muslim youths they met often knew little about Islam in America. Some 500 students at a mosque in India were stunned and overwhelmed when they met Ms. Mubarak, who wears the hijab.
"They had this perception there were no Muslims in America, and I could tell them I'm able to cover my hair, that I go to mosque, and there are millions of Muslims like me," she says.
Students may be best ambassadors
Such experiences have led Ahmed to tell the State Department that young Americans, including Muslims, are the best ambassadors the US could have in the Muslim world. Not only do they make friends readily, he says, but they are also willing to listen.
Sessions with students might begin in an icy or even hostile tone. "But when they saw we wanted to listen, they were surprised and thrilled, and you saw a change in tone," Mubarak says. "It made an impact wherever we went."