OPENING A DIALOGUE: How people in Muslim countries view the U.S. & how people in the U.S. view Muslims

April 23, 2008

Students are invited to think critically about these complex issues through poll questions, brief case studies, and a critical thinking exercise.

The classroom materials below encourage students to examine their knowledge of and thinking about U.S. policy toward Muslims and Muslim countries; how people in Muslim countries view the U.S.; and how people in the U.S. view Muslims. They include poll questions, brief case studies for student discussion, and a critical thinking exercise.

This may be a sensitive subject for students, particularly Muslim students, and it requires a safe classroom environment in which students' feelings and values are respected. You might want to begin with a preliminary discussion aimed at finding out what students know, think and feel about the subject. You may also want to read TeachableMoment's "Teaching Controversial Issues: Guidelines for Teachers."

A discussion of these materials might well lead to some study of basic Islamic beliefs. See the TeachableMoment lesson on "Islam and the West" for a possible approach. The lesson provides an overview of the historical relationship between Islam and the West.


Student Questionnaire I

Respond to each of the following questions with Y (yes), N (no), or DN (don't know.)

1. I know little or nothing about Islamic religious practices.
2. Islam is very different from my own religion.
3. Islam encourages violence.
4. I have a favorable impression of Muslim Americans.
5. I have a favorable impression of Muslims.
6. I know at least one Muslim.

The results of a Pew Research Center national poll of 3,002 American adults published 9/25/07 on each of these questions (

1. Yes: 58%
2. Yes: 79%
3. Yes: 45%
4. Yes: 53%
5. Yes: 43%
6. Yes: 56%

For discussion

1. Have a show of hands on student responses to compare with the Pew results.

2. What do students say they know about Islamic religious practices? What are their sources of information? How accurate are their responses?

3. What do students say about the differences between their own religion (if it is not Islam) and the Islamic religion? How accurate are their responses?

4. What do students say about that statement that "Islam encourages violence?" Why? How accurate are their responses?

5. What difference, if any, is there in student responses to items #4 and #5? How do they explain the difference, if there is one?

6. Compare the responses to items #4 and #5 of those who know at least one Muslim
with those who don't. How do students explain any differences?

Professor Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history, has written: "Very few Muslims are either violent or fundamentalist...About 10 to 15 percent of Muslims throughout the world...generally support a fundamentalist point of view, including the implementation of Islamic law as the law of that state. But they are not typically violent, and the United States has managed to ally with some of them, as with the Shiite fundamentalist Dawa Party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki." (Juan Cole, "Combating Muslim Extremism," The Nation, 11/19/07)


Student Questionnaire II

Respond to each of the following questions with Y (yes), N (no), or DK (don't know.)

1. Should college or university officials agree to the request of Muslim women that a gym be restricted to women at certain times?

2. Should a Muslim woman be required to remove her head scarf after being arrested and taken to a jail?

3. Should police round up and jail Muslim men if American buildings are destroyed without warning?

4. Should a Muslim professor of Islamic studies who has criticized U.S. policies be allowed to enter the U.S. and teach at an American university?

5. Should a newspaper be allowed to publish cartoons making fun of the Prophet

6. Are most Muslims of Arab descent?

Discuss students' responses to the questions.

Background on the questions:

1. Harvard University did so recently at the request of Muslim women who "felt that workout clothes violated the Muslim prescription that both sexes wear modest dress in shared environments." ( New York Times , 3/21/08)

2. A Muslim woman arrested in San Bernardino County, California was required by jail authorities to remove her head scarf. (, 2/27/08)

3. Immediately following 9/11, hundreds of Muslim men in the U.S. were jailed for months. None were indicted for terrorist acts. Some were deported for visa violations.

4. Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar of Swiss nationality who lives in Britain, was invited several years ago to teach at Notre Dame but prevented from doing so when his visa was revoked without explanation.

5. A Danish newspaper published such cartoons several years ago, setting off angry Muslim demonstrations around the world.

6. Most Muslims are not of Arab descent. For example, most people in such majority Muslim countries as Indonesia and Turkey as well as in India and China, where they do not make up the majority, are not ethnically Arab. The Muslim populations of those four countries are over 400 million of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.

For discussion

1. Below is a brief case study for discussion and a student decision about the modesty requirements followed by devout Muslim women. (Related to items 1 and 2 above)

Jameelah Medina was arrested in Pomona, California, on December 7, 2005, for having an invalid train pass. The arresting officer accused her of being a terrorist and a supporter of Saddam Hussein. When she tried to explain why she wears a hijab (Arabic for "cover"), or head scarf, to cover her hair, ears, neck and part of her chest, he would not listen. A devout Muslim, she obeys the principle that a woman must remain covered in the presence of men, except those in her immediate family.

At the jail she was forced to remove the hijab and remain uncovered much of the day in the presence of men she did not know. She was eventually released without charge. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Bernardino County for violation of California's civil rights law. A judge has required that county officials answer Medina's complaint, dismissing the county's explanation that she hadn't been physically forced to remove her hijab. The case is pending. (, 2/27/08)

How would students rule in this case? Why?

2. Should Muslims be arrested in the event of a catastrophe like 9/11? If so, why? (Related to item 3 above.)

Below is a brief case study on the World War II round-up of 120,000 people of Japanese background for student discussion.

On February 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It called for the round-up of about 120,000 people of Japanese background who lived on the West Coast. Of those 120,000, 45,000 had come from Japan many years earlier but were prevented by U.S. law from becoming American citizens. Most of the remaining 75,000 detainees were young people who had been born in the United States and spoke American English.

All were ordered to abandon their homes and businesses and leave most of their belongings behind. They were eventually taken to relocation centers in desert areas, mostly in the Southwest United States, where they lived in tar-paper barracks. Most worked at such unskilled jobs as harvesting sugar beets. The last of the relocation centers were shut down in 1946, a year after World War II ended. It took more than 40 years for these Japanese-Americans to receive any indemnity for what they had lost. That came in 1988 when the 60,000 former detainees who were still alive received $20,000.

How do students explain President Roosevelt's decision? What similarities do you see between the detaining of people of Japanese background and the detaining of Muslims after 9/11? Differences? Why do you suppose Roosevelt did not make the same decision about German-Americans or Italian-Americans? If students need to know more to answer these questions, what sources do they think might be helpful?

3. See item 4 above. Was Tariq Ramadan treated unfairly? Do you need to know more before answering this question? If so, what questions would you need to answer? How might you answer them?

4. See item 5. above. How might you find out more about the Danish cartoons and the reaction to them? Especially since 9/11, slurs, jokes and cartoons about Muslims have appeared in American media. Should they be banned? Why or why not?

5. See item 6 above. How would you explain why so many Americans think most Muslims are of Arab descent?

Student Reading:

What do people in Muslim nations think about U.S. policy?

According to a recent study, a strong majority of people in four major Muslim countries—Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia—believe that:

  • "Undermining Islam is a key goal of U.S. foreign policy."
  • The U.S. wants to maintain "control over the oil resources of the Middle East."
  • The U.S. should "remove its bases and military forces from all Islamic countries."
  • The U.S. should be pressured "to not favor Israel."

"While U.S. leaders may frame the conflict as a war on terrorism, people in the Islamic world clearly perceive the U.S. as being at war with Islam," said Stephen Kull, editor of, which published the study. In later testimony before a House committee, he also said, "Muslims share the worldwide view that the U.S. does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy." (3/17/07)

"Substantial numbers also favor attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Persian Gulf," Kull noted. "Support is strongest in Egypt, where at least eight in ten approve of attacking U.S. troops in the region....Pakistanis are divided about attacks on the American military—many do not answer or express mixed feelings-while Indonesians oppose them."

Other significant results of the study

  • Thirty percent express positive feelings toward Osama bin Laden.
  • Most disapprove of "groups that use violence against civilians, such as al Qaeda." In Pakistan, however, opinion was divided and many did not respond to a question on this issue.
  • Most would "keep Western values out of Islamic countries."
  • Most approve "the world becoming more connected through greater economic trade and faster communication."
  • Most agree that "a democratic political system is a good way to govern their country."
  • Most support the idea that in their country "people of every religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs."

These were among the results of an in-depth public opinion study, "Muslim Public Opinion on U.S. Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda," produced at the University of Maryland by its Program on International Policy Attitudes. Well over 400 million Muslims live in the four countries polled. (, 4/24/07)

Thinking critically

1. Assign the following reading from an op-ed article, "Too Scary for the Classroom," by Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar referred to in Questionnaire II.

Students should read the excerpt from the article as open-mindedly as possible and then the factual examples supporting his views. Ask them to suppress their critical responses and make an effort to believe that he might be right. Emphasize that this does not necessarily mean agreeing with everything Ramadan wrote. In short, it means playing the "believing game."

(See "Teaching Critical Thinking" for a detailed discussion of this process, which includes the believing game as well as the doubting game, inquiring, and integrating one's thinking.)

"In the Arab and Islamic world, one hears a great deal of legitimate criticism of American foreign policy. This is not to be confused with a rejection of American values. Rather, the misgivings are rooted in five specific grievances: the feeling that the United States role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unbalanced; the long-standing support of authoritarian regimes in Islamic states and indifference to genuine democratic movements (particularly those that have a religious bent); the belief that Washington's policies are driven by short-term economic and geostrategic interests; the willingness of some prominent Americans to tolerate Islam-bashing at home; and the use of military force as the primary means of establishing democracy.

"Instead of war, the Arab and Muslim worlds seek evidence of a lasting and substantive commitment by the United States to policies that would advance public education, equitable trade and mutually profitable economic and cultural partnerships. For this to occur, America first has to trust Muslims, genuinely listen to their hopes and grievances, and allow them to develop their own models of pluralism and democracy...

"I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world...However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. This is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat in America."

—Tariq Ramadan, New York Times , 9/1/04

Factual examples supporting Tariq Ramadan's views:

  • Each year, the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion yearly in aid—mostly military aid.
  • Many Muslims view this and other aid as supporting the occupation of Palestinian land and the impoverishment and suppression of the Palestinian people.
  • The U.S. provides both financial and diplomatic support for authoritarian regimes in Islamic states including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
  • The U.S. has deep economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, including protecting oil interests and Israel. It supports these interests in part with military bases in largely Muslim nations in the Persian Gulf that are under authoritarian rule (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates).
  • The U.S. stated that its reasons for invading Iraq included regime change, the liberation of the Iraqi people, and the establishment of democracy.
  • According to repeated polls of the Iraqi people by the U.S. Department of Defense, most Iraqis believe that the U.S. occupation makes peace less possible in their country and creates violence rather than quelling it. Most Iraqis believe that the U.S. remains in Iraq because of its oil. And they think that the U.S.'s decision to build a number of substantial bases in Iraq indicates its decision to stay indefinitely. (

2. Have students reread the Ramadan excerpt as a preliminary to playing the "doubting game." Ask them this time to subject Ramadan's views to critical questions. Then they should analyze their questions for clarity, and choose one or more of the questions as a basis for inquiry.

3. The final step in the process is to have students review their thinking during the course of the exercises and subject themselves and the issues they have studied to a written analysis.


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: