11/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

8th Anniversary of Sept 11: Do We Understand Them?

Two weeks before the 8th anniversary of the tragedy of Sept. 11, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told military members that "Muslims abroad live in fear of terror but at the same time doubt the United States."

Admiral Mullen also criticized the concept of "strategic communication" saying it is doing nothing to improve the image of the United States in the Muslim world because Muslims do not hear "talking points."

President Obama's initiative toward the Muslim world gave them these "talking points." Since his early outreach to Muslims immediately after his inauguration with the Al Arabiya TV interview, followed later by his historical speech in Cairo University on June 4, Obama delivered exactly what admiral Mullen described as "talking points."

Similar talking points were adopted by the previous George W. Bush administration, points such as respect of Islam and Muslims, the necessity of hope and anticipation of a better future for all, and that America is not and will not be in a war against Islam. Yet they did not work.

For the past eight years, I have observed Washington, D.C. circles fail to go beyond the classic talking points. Each anniversary of Sept. 11 brings a new wave of familiar old questions. I witness Americans asking Americans and discussing amongst themselves, the topic of something none of them are -- Arabs or Muslims. Eight years after the devastating attacks, Americans are still asking that ubiquitous question: "Why do they hate us?"

Such a question suggests a misleading conflation of American policies and citizens. In other words, the phrasing implies that the alleged hatred from Muslims is directed toward the American people and not toward specific U.S. institutions or policies. Although terrorists like Osama bin Laden have claimed that any American citizen is a target, the vast majority of Muslims oppose this attitude.

Part of this failure stems from the flawed question most often used by Americans in regards to the Arab world: "Why do they hate us?" Yet, if Americans insist on posing this question, I pose another: "Why don't 'you' ask 'them'?" The United States cannot win credibility in the Muslim world through new public relations strategies and instead must pursue actions that build trust; the first step is to listen to Muslims, and to recognize how they see the world, themselves and America.

A recent Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, published in late July, indicated that that the image of the United States has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama.

Although signs of improvement in views of America are seen even in some predominantly Muslim countries, opinions of the United States among Muslims in the Middle East remain largely unfavorable.

U.S. policies, more than anything, are the source of animosity towards America. In fact, Muslims, for the most part, recognize the difference between America's citizens and its policies, citing their grievances with the superpower not in regard to the "American way of life," but to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and America's double standards in promoting democracy.

Despite the Muslim world's embrace of Obama -- as enthusiastic as it is -- Muslims remain skeptical of a United States that has a long history of failure to follow through on its promises. The Muslim public views the rhetoric emanating from Washington as a method of justifying America's continuation of adopting "secret rendition policy." News from America such as a serious debate about the closure of the Guantanamo detention camp, and ending torture practices show the best of American political dynamics. The stopping of usage of phrases such as the war on terror played a role in proving that the change in America is real, yet it is difficult to achieve.

For the Obama administration to continue its focus only on improving the image of the United States abroad, through the approach of "strategic communication" or "public diplomacy," as has been the case in the years since September 2001, is to see only half of the picture. If the United States hopes to better its image in the Muslim world, there will need to be a parallel change in how Americans recognize Muslims. And to start you should listen to the voices of the Arab and Muslim world.

This means listening carefully and actively to the real representatives of the Muslim and Arab community -- individuals who are in many cases not native speakers of English and have different cultural and behavioral norms. Too often, Washington's major think tanks are actively involved in initiatives with the Muslim world, yet most lecturers and panelists are continuously diverted by individuals who speak fluent English and act and behave with an air of superiority in their native tongue. More efforts need to be invested in approaching real Muslims who represents the true community and identity of Muslim thought and opinion.

Mohamed Elmenshawy is the editor in chief of Arab Insight, a project of the World Security Institute in Washington, DC.