When Junaid Bin Masood, a 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student studying in southern California, was asked whether he had a gun in his backpack, he was speechless. He had never been out of Pakistan before, so this question from a schoolmate was jolting. But he kept his cool and explained that most Pakistanis are not jihadists.
"Everyone knows there are good and bad things all over the world," Junaid says. "There are some bad people in Pakistan, too. Just like in the US." Such incidents underscore the divide between Americans and the people of Muslim countries. That is why the US State Department created the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program (www.yesprograms.org). This competitive program sends some of the best and brightest teens from Muslim countries worldwide on one-year stints to high schools across the United States. "What both Americans and our students learn is that while there are difficulties and conflicts between our cultures, the overriding desire of both is very simple and the same: to live in peace," says David Beiser, director of grant programs at Ayusa Global Youth Exchange, who works with the State Department to carry out the program.
About 3,000 Muslim students from nearly two dozen countries have participated in the program since its inception in 2003. In the 2007-08 school year, it brought 750 students to the US.
The State Department is planning to expand the program. Next year, it will add 25 more students and one country, Suriname. Mr. Beiser says the program hopes to take this even further. And starting next year, American high schoolers will study in some of the Muslim countries in a reverse exchange. "Exchange programs are not the only way to mend relations between the US and Muslim countries, but they are an important one," Beiser says. "Every time a YES student and an American family have a successful program together, a minisummit takes place and helps relations a little at a time."
Diana Kamakh, a Palestinian YES participant from Lebanon who spent the past school year in a high school in Colorado Springs, says that those who've been to the United States have a much more favorable opinion of the country than those who have not.
"If you've been to the US, you must fall in love with something in it," she says. "Plus you'll get a chance to know that the government and the people are two different things."
Lisa Anderson, former dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York and provost of the American University in Cairo, says that despite a few cases of visiting Muslims being appalled by what they see as a decadent United States, most have a positive experience.
"They [will] tell stories for the rest of their lives about their host families, their classmates, roommates, faculty, and even ordinary people who went out of their way for them," Dr. Anderson says. But can one program really bridge the gap between the United States and Muslim nations?
Anderson says that the US has not done enough to reverse its bad image in Muslim countries.
"I think most of us involved in higher education in the United States have been dismayed by the US government's failure to seize on educational exchange … as a way to ameliorate the damaging consequences of our increasingly onerous visa policies since 2001," she says, adding that student exchanges are a way for the US to brighten its tarnished image.
Until this decade, it wasn't unusual at all for Muslim students from the Middle East and elsewhere to study in the US.
But since 2001, Anderson notes, Muslim parents abroad are much less likely to send their children to study in the United States. The parents are concerned that their children could be harassed at US airports and unwelcome on campuses.
"Many, many national elites around the world studied in the United States when they were young," she says, "but that pipeline is drying up and we will regret it in 20 years."
Ironically, that has probably been good for American-style institutions in the Muslim world, such as the American University in Cairo, which saw its biggest applicant increase in history this year, she says.
Still, the YES program has made inroads.
Ruby Pena, Junaid's American classmate and a high school senior, says that he was the first Pakistani she had ever met. "I learned a lot about what [he] and his friends do in Pakistan, which is almost the same as what we do here," she says, noting activities such as going to the movies. "I realized that no matter where, people do the same things."
But despite these social bridges, images often drive opinions more than dialogue. "I think the images most people have of the Muslim world come from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, of course, from Sept. 11," Beiser says.
Such impressions are dispelled when host families and schools meet YES students, Beiser says.
But it can come as a shock to American students to learn that their own country's image in the Muslim world is not particularly flattering either, he adds.
Nevertheless, says Diana, the Lebanese student, "Muslim communities are not all anti-American like it is pictured in the American media."
But prejudice continues to exist, demonstrating the need for the program. Diana says that she had an experience much like Junaid's.
She met another exchange student (not from YES) who asked if she carried a gun. "I was kind of mad," she says, "but I understand that he doesn't know any better. Every time someone knew I'm a Muslim from the Middle East, they ask me questions like that."
Generally, however, Americans tend to be tolerant of Muslims, says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.
Although a few people tend to link Islam automatically to terrorism or the subjugation of women, Americans are largely people of faith, he adds, and respect others' beliefs.
Despite the notion that the US media promotes a negative image of Muslims, the origin of these images must be understood, Mr. Hooper says. "In large part it comes from people doing negative things overseas. And not only overseas, but we also had [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11.
"Obviously Muslims do not believe those linkages [between terrorists and all Muslims] are justified, and Islam does not create these linkages," Hooper says.
"But in some cases, Muslims do create these linkages."
Junaid says that some of his beliefs about the US were debunked when he came to the US as part of the YES program. Before arriving, he thought American life was a perpetual fraternity party.
But he learned differently during his stay, says Katherine Migliaccio, his host mother. He discovered what it's really like to be an American. And that's the image he took home to Pakistan with him.
"They all think it's like 'Baywatch' here," she says. "He realized that's not how Americans are."