As a Muslim-American, I watched with great interest Thursday morning as President Obama spoke to the world about the state of the Middle East. With that region engulfed in so much turmoil, this provides America a crucial opportunity to take a stand. I was looking for a glimpse into how the president proposed to address what some have called “the Muslim problem,” in which some people living in the Middle East still harbor unfavorable attitudes towards America. When a portion of such people then hold extremist groups in higher esteem, that becomes a recipe for disaster.

A new Pew survey of Middle East nations found that U.S. favorability and confidence in President Obama has either declined or not changed significantly since 2009.

Even the recent uprising of pro-democracy movements has not led to an improvement in America’s image among the people in the region. To the contrary, the survey found that America’s image remained negative. This decline is because the U.S. has a reputation of supporting the leaders of these countries, as opposed to the people of these countries. And many of these leaders have proven to be corrupt and unjust.

As a Muslim, the behavior of these so-called leaders of Muslim nations is appalling. Far from being a government for the people, corruption has permeated such leaders, and ethical behavior has become rare among them. They reciprocate a fraction of what they receive, are embroiled in dishonesty and are largely oblivious of the state’s health and public demands.

And historically, our government has made alliances with such self-centered, egotistic and immoral leaders because such an alliance served our needs at that time. Whether it was Syria’s Bashir Assad, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, our past leaders provided them support instead of calls for reform. By supporting such power-hungry regimes – instead of the people which they failed to represent – our credibility suffered incredibly.

Time will tell if President Obama’s decisions prove fruitful. As a loyal American citizen who wants to see us steer the right course and also protect our people, I hope and pray President Obama will focus his outreach on the people of the Middle East.

This is not a war that can be won with guns. This is a war of ideas, which requires tactfully addressing religious factors.

We can continue to target high ranking officers of terrorist groups, but that will not lead us to victory.

Corrupt religious leaders in the Middle East have brainwashed susceptible individuals through a perversion of Islam to further their political agenda.

To reverse this trend, America must support voices within the Muslim community who are willing to fight this political ideology with the true teachings of Islam.

We, as Muslims, must step-up to win this war of ideology, or our nation will continue to face a serious threat of extremists. Until Muslims become part of the solution -- with particular outreach to the youth -- the same dangerous ideology of the past will persist to future generations. We must not only vigorously condemn terrorism in all forms but also advocate for universal human rights, separation of mosque and state, protection for religious and other minorities, and the empowerment and education of women.

Bringing such Muslim leaders into the discussion and holding us accountable for fighting this war of ideology will be a huge breakthrough for the United States. Being viewed as just, fair and concerned with the rights of the people (not governments) will be a tremendous accomplishment. We will be seen not only as ensuring citizens of those countries are protected from such regimes but also protecting our own citizens from the backlash suffered as those regimes grow stronger. How great would it be for this so-called “Muslim problem” to turn into the “Muslim solution”?

Harris Zafar is the National Spokesperson for the oldest Muslim organization in America - Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA - who are founders of the nationwide "Muslims for Peace" initiative. A frequent lecturer and writer about Islam, he can be reached at harris.zafar@ahmadiyya.us.