In his first interview with Dubai-based Arabic TV network Al Arabiya, President Barack Obama connected with Muslim audiences, saying, “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”
News reports from around the Muslim world show an upsurge of optimism as America inaugurated its first African American president last week. This optimism is not just the product of President Barack Obama’s race or his middle name, Hussein, but rather a reflection of his thoughtful leadership.
In his inaugural address President Obama displayed rare perceptiveness by asserting, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He followed this with a warning “to those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, … your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”
With these words, he affirmed the need for all nations to find ways to solve their internal problems without blaming them on the Western world, while simultaneously acknowledging America’s role: “… As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself. America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
Obama’s words of hope present Muslims with a new opportunity for engagement. By rebuilding their communities on a positive vision of economic, educational and political opportunities for all citizens, Muslims can effectively counter the morally bankrupt ideology of religious extremism so abhorred in normative Islam.
Obama assured Muslims that they would not be alone in this battle. He vowed to defeat terrorism “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” This means not only banning torture and renditions, but also stereotyping and finger-pointing.
In his Al Arabiya interview, he underscored the need to “look forward and not simply think about all the conflicts and tragedies of the past.”
To create a clean break from the past, Obama should, like the European Union, ban language linking the faith of Islam to terrorism, and make ill-defined words like “Islamofascism”, “jihadist” and “Islamist” relics of the past. Several American military and security experts, including Dr. Douglas Streusand, and Lt. Col. Harry Tunnell of the National Defense University, concur that rhetorically tying terrorism to Islam only alienates Muslims, without solving the problem of terrorism.
President Obama can also usher in a new era of US-Muslim cooperation through clear changes in policy and a new use of diplomacy. For example, foreign assistance programmes should be re-examined to make sure that they balance security imperatives with social investments in health, education, innovation and entrepreneurship. And the rejuvenated State Department could expand educational exchange programmes around the globe, particularly with countries in the Muslim world.
One of the most difficult issues Obama inherits is the yet unresolved conflict between Israel and the Arab world. In the words of Gandhi, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, and this sadly expresses the reality of this conflict. An assertive and neutral America will be able to break the cycle of conflict on the basis of mutually assured security, dignity and prosperity.
In addition, Obama will have to put forth the idea of a grand détente, providing all regional players –” including Syria and Iran –” a real stake in shaping the future of their region.
Obama should make clear that in helping the Muslim world, America will not seek waiver in its values and ideals –” championing democratisation, re-establishing the rule of law, expanding the notions of religious freedom, and upholding the ideals of equality, especially for women and minorities.
A 2008 Gallup Poll shows that majorities in the Muslim world share many of these values. A friendly America can strengthen these attitudes.
In engaging with the Muslim world, Obama should also take into account the role Muslim Americans can play in affecting foreign policy. During election season, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell made special note of the patriotism of Muslim Americans, who unfortunately remain invisible in our mainstream public discourses, except in the context of terrorism.
Imagine President Obama, eschewing the invariable attacks he may face and publicly seeking the help of Muslim Americans to shape his new policy agenda towards the Muslim world. This very effort will undermine the narrative at the heart of anti-Americanism –” the perception in the Muslim world that America is at war with Islam.