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Muslim-Christian Understanding Crucial to Better US Relations with Muslim World

To mark the spring holiday of Nowruz, President Barack Obama called for a "new beginning" in relations between Iran and the United States. The Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University has proposed a set of recommendations to help Mr. Obama engage Iran and the rest of the Muslim world in a constructive way.

"I think one of the first things is to encourage President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to work more closely with the international and transnational Muslim organizations and the broader kinds of organizations that work for intercultural and international understanding," says Georgetown University professor John Voll, associate director of the center.

He says the center has been building bridges of understanding between the Muslim world and the West since it was created in 1993. Its programs address issues such as stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, the clash of civilizations, the compatibility of Islam and modern life, and American foreign policy in the Muslim world.

Since President Obama's inauguration, Voll says the center has been approached by policy makers and members of Congress hoping for insight into the best way to engage the Muslim world in a constructive and respectful manner.

"I think where we have a little greater impact now than before is in helping Congress and in helping the White House to be more aware of the importance of our own American-Muslim community and making better use of the American Muslims as resources for information," Voll says.

Voll says cooperating in education is fundamental to better relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. He says both sides must improve textbooks to make sure there are no factual errors or demonizing of the other. The center is launching a new program through the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut to help people in the Arab world get a better understanding of American society. It also invites Muslim groups to the United States to meet members of the Muslim-American community, to see how they worship and create Islamic institutions in a country where religion and government are separate.

Professor Yvonne Haddad, a member of the center's faculty, believes that President Obama's message is striking many of the right chords in the Muslim world.

"When President Obama took the oath of office he made the statement, 'We are a nation of Christians and Muslims,' and then Jews and Hindus. That was interesting to me, because it sort of changed the mantra, which used to be, 'We are Judo-Christian country.' So he gave a lot of prominence to it [Islam], but I would like to see more than words," Haddad says.

For example, she points out that no American Muslims were appointed to major posts in the Obama administration, while the president has several Jewish-American advisors and officials.

"As long as he does not consult with Muslims to understand where they are coming from, it seems to me that his policies will be determined by what he is fed as information," she says. "He does not have a senior Muslim advisor and does not have people in the administration that seem to understand the Arab world well."

Haddad recommends that President Obama match his good words with some good deeds, such as voicing a strong American objection to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or proposals to evacuate Palestinians from dozens of homes in Jerusalem.

A few months from now, she says, words alone will not be enough. America will be judged by its actions, not by its promises, and Obama's ambitious promises of change will make that judgment even harsher.