With the rapid spread of misinformation on the Internet and TV, and the destructive conflict in the Middle East, no one can afford to ignore a widening cultural, religious and political divide between the West and Islam.

Zogby International and the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies conducted polls in six “friendly” Muslim countries and reported that only 12 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward the United States. Similarly, a Gallup survey reported that nearly 40 percent of Americans admitted to having some prejudice toward Muslims.

However, according to a BBC World Service poll across 27 countries, a majority of Muslims and Christians believe that the problem mostly derives from political conflict rather than a conflict in values or culture. They also believe that Muslims, non-Muslims and Westerners reject the idea that violent division is inevitable between Islam and the West.

Many people in the world, including Americans, strongly disagree with our government’s foreign policies — such as the Iraq war, and unconditional support for Israel and dictatorships in the Middle East. Those policies cause some in the Muslim world to falsely blame all Americans for the administration’s policies.

Unfortunately, people fear what they don’t know. So, the key to bridging the cultural and religious gap between Muslim countries and the West is to facilitate discourse, support interaction and reject stereotyping. This will foster the right atmosphere to resolve the political grievances.

For starters, we should encourage tourism and student exchanges. Americans should break bread and sip tea with Muslims, and visit countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Morocco that are rich in cultural history. Muslims in Senegal, Indonesia, Lebanon and China should visit Western countries. Such exchanges bring about learning and appreciation of other cultures.

Another effective tool in bridging the divide is good, old-fashioned reading. Read books by Rumi, Ibn Khaldun, Mark Twain and Maya Angelou. Read the Quran. Read the Bible. We should step out of our comfort zones and explore the world beyond our street corners.

Americans have an advantage, in that corporations have successfully exported our culture to the rest of the world. People all over the world are familiar with American products and culture. Sadly, this hasn’t encouraged us to learn about other cultures.

Such lack of education becomes critical when dealing with the Muslim world, especially as extremists from all sides seek to widen the divide with the West.

In the Quran, God tells people, “O mankind! Lo! We have created you from a male and a female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct.” (49:13)

Hussam Ayloush is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California.


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