While the tragic events of Sept. 11 have led many Americans to read up on Islam - the religion the attackers used to justify their cause - for others these terrorist attacks have just confirmed their prejudices.
Today, the Cairo-based Arab League begins a conference to discuss how to improve the image of Islam in the West. More than 70 intellectuals and Islamic thinkers from 20 Arab countries will participate in this first-of-its-kind Arab League conference that will also design a concrete plan of action.
Experts in the region agree that improving Islam's image in the West is vital. "This is important for both the East and the West," says Hussein Amin, an Egyptian writer of Islamic affairs at the conference. "For us, not achieving this will be disastrous, because our contacts with the outside world will weaken. The economic effects will be disastrous.... On the part of the West, to feel hatred toward a whole people and culture can't lead to a comfortable situation. They will lose the real contribution that Islam can make to world civilization."
Conference organizers also say correcting misperceptions is essential to protect Muslims and Arabs living in the West, who have suffered verbal and physical assaults, lost jobs, and been detained without cause since the attacks.
Some analysts believe that the West's misunderstanding of Islam is as old as the religion itself, which began in the 7th century and was quickly followed by battles between Muslims and Christians. In modern time, these misperceptions worsened with the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli conflicts that ensued and continue today.
Many place a large part of the blame on the Western media with its constant images of veiled Muslim women, radical sheikhs calling for holy war, and masked men chanting anti-American slogans. Since Sept. 11, the recurring shots of the swarthy hijackers, Palestinians applauding the attacks, and Pakistanis hailing Osama bin Laden, the main suspect, as a hero have only exacerbated the situation. These images overwhelm the Islamic voices of moderation, analysts say.
Intellectuals and Islamic clergy offer a wide array of suggestions. Some believe that Muslim thinkers must better explain Islam by writing books and articles, giving lectures and holding meetings with people of other religions.
They say scholars should improve the usual stodgy translations of Islamic texts - like the Koran, Islam's holy book - so more Westerners can understand them. English-language television stations could broadcast from the Arab world to the West, and Islamic thinkers could answer questions about Islam on television and the Internet.
"We need Islamic scholars to spread out in Western cities to teach non-Mus-lims the truth of Islam, that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy, that rejects the killing of innocent people," says Abd Al Moaty Bayoumy, dean of theology at Cairo's Al Azhar University, the cradle of Islamic learning.
Dr. Bayoumy also participates in Islam Line, a 24-hour hotline that people call to ask esteemed Al Azhar sheikhs questions about Islam. The idea has been so successful that beginning next year Islam Line will also be available in English, French, and German and can be dialed from Europe or North America. Today, Islam Line began an Internet service to ask these same sheikhs questions via the Web (www.arabacademy.com).
Other intellectuals call for an Islamic renaissance, in which the Muslim world unifies the diverse interpretations of its religion. "Muslims should reach a consensus about which formula of Islam we are adopting," says Said Al Ashmawy, a former judge and liberal Islamic thinker. "Saudi Arabia has a formula. Egypt has a formula. Pakistan has a formula, and the Taliban has a formula."
Mr. Ashmawy and others call for the Muslim world to accept an Islam that respects basic human freedoms, accepts other faiths, and encourages science and technology.
While an Islamic reformation is a high order, some scholars believe Muslim governments should at least start supporting moderate Muslim leaders and giving them more say. This could drown out the voices of extremism, analysts say.
Other scholars call on autocratic Muslim governments to transform themselves into democratic regimes. "If Muslims could build their own democratic states and defend their own values, this will help the image of Islam," says Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent spokes-man in Cairo for nonviolent Islamists. "It will decrease fanaticism in the state."