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Experts Urge Improving Understanding Between US, Islam

Relations between the United States and much of the Islamic world have been marked by mistrust and misunderstanding, particularly since the war in Iraq. A panel of Islamic experts says there are moves both sides can make to improve understanding.

Many Americans first became acquainted with Islam during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Since then, many people in the United States perceive Islam as violent and intolerant. The United States, experts say, is widely seen in the Muslim world as a colonial power trying to redraw the map and fighting a war against their religion.

At a discussion co-sponsored by the World Council of Washington Wednesday, John Esposito, author of the book, What Everybody Needs to Know About Islam, and a professor of Muslim-Christian studies at Georgetown University, says the United States has a tough job when it comes to improving ties.

"What we're faced with today, and what any administration will be faced with is, in fact, a relationship with the Muslim world that requires, on the one hand, going after terrorists, and on the other hand, building bridges with the mainstream," he said.

Edward Gnehm, a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait, says the day after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, nearly four-thousand Jordanian citizens came to the U.S Embassy in Amman to express their sorrow. He says the seeds for better ties are there, but that efforts by the United States to protect itself at its borders, could be alienating those who seek improved ties.

"The impact of very stringent visa regulations, and the way we treat visitors now when they arrive in the United States is, in fact, to humiliate and make [travel to the United States] more difficult [for] the very group of Arabs who are pro-American, and tend to want to have a relationship with us, from coming here," he said.

The panelists noted that the United States is critical of repressive policies in many Muslim countries that severely limit opposition and women's rights.

Helah Esfandiari, a former official of the Women's Organization of Iran, says countries in the Middle East that are opposed to building more liberal societies cannot just blame the West for regional problems.

"In Iran, reformist parliamentarians were disqualified, and conservatives are now gaining the upper hand in Iran once again, once again trying to turn the clock back," she said. "It is not always the West that is at fault, when it comes to the region. We in the region must also show an effort and a will to advance."

The United States has been pursuing programs to forge understanding between the Muslim world and America. President Bush has called Islam a religion of hope and comfort to more than one billion people, and stressed that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam.