Over the past week, President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo elicited a variety of reactions from its intended Arab and Muslim audience. The success of his outreach efforts, however, will be decided by a more unlikely group: the American public.

A history of American prejudice against Arabs and Muslims could potentially unravel Obama’s delicate efforts toward peace and mutual understanding. While anti-American sentiment in the Muslim and Arab world is a relatively recent phenomenon, stemming largely from the misguided approach of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the negative image of Islam and Arabs among Americans has been entrenched for several decades. These stereotypes have pervaded both scholarly works and popular books and movies.

During his presidential campaign, Obama confronted such attitudes in the repeated attempts to portray him as a Muslim, a perception so negative that it threatened his presidential bid. This is not surprising, given that over half of Americans today believe Islam is more prone to violent extremism than other religions.

Despite overwhelming prejudices at home, the United States has tackled the issue of its relations with Muslims and Arabs with a clumsy campaign to improve its image abroad. Following the post-9/11 wisdom that foreign perceptions have domestic consequences, America’s efforts in the Middle East have focused on innovative, high-profile branding campaigns.

But these efforts address only one side of the problem. Improving the image of America in the Arab and Muslim world is contingent on changing how Americans perceive Arabs and Muslims. Obama’s speech in Cairo was as much about Americans as it was about Arabs and Muslims. By taking his call for “mutual respect” to heart, the American public can hold the key to improving U.S.-Muslim relations.

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R.S. Zaharna is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, an associate professor of public communication at American University, and author of Strategic U.S. Public Diplomacy in a Global Communication Era (Palgrave) due out later this year.

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