Obama's Unique Opportunity To Redefine U.S.-Muslim World Relations

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Arab Spring, Arab World, Barack Obama, Osama Bin Laden Channel: Opinion Views: 2845

President Obama in the front of  Istiqlal Grand Mosque Jakarta, Nov. 10, 2010

President Barack Obama's speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa on Thursday, May 19th comes in the midst of a historic transformation in the region with broad implications for U.S.-Muslim world relations. The death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring offer new challenges to the Obama administration and the EU to restore and strengthen U.S.-Muslim world relations. However, it will require an alternative framework for a failed decades-long paradigm. The challenge for American (and European) policymakers will be to move beyond equating protection of national interests with the stability and security of authoritarian regimes to a policy based on the pursuit of our national interests within America's principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.

Much has changed since the Muslim world responded enthusiastically to Obama's election and Cairo speech. Initially, major polls, like that of Gallup, reported a significant spike in attitudes towards the U.S. However, many soon perceived a gap between Obama's vision and rhetoric vs. the administration's failure to deliver on his New Way Forward. There seemed little difference between Bush and Obama policies on closing Guantanamo and introduction of military courts, the significant increase of troops in Afghanistan, his backtracking and retreat from his firm stand on an end to illegal settlements in Palestine-Israel, and continued support for authoritarian regimes.

As a result, Obama faces a much more skeptical audience this time around that will not be easily wooed simply by better rhetoric. Credibility and respect requires fairness in policies in addition to culturally sensitive language.

Bin Laden's death symbolized the failure of al Qaeda and transnational terrorism to achieve their goals of mobilization and development of a mass movement to topple regimes and fight the Western presence and intervention. The Arab Spring signaled that failure when a diverse broad-based mass movement that did not look to bin Laden's model of violence and terrorism but rather opted for a non-violent populist uprising demanding greater democratization. 

In some ways, the Arab Spring symbolizes the failure of both al Qaeda and America. Ironically, both were partially responsible/complicit in creating the conditions for Arab repression: the U.S. either by supporting unpopular authoritarian regimes and al Qaeda by providing them with the fuel to repress their populations through emergency laws and fear. As a result, Arabs looked to neither discredited parties for their freedom. Instead, for the first time in a generation, they looked inward for answers. 

The Obama administration, like most experts and Arab governments, were caught off guard by the upheaval and rapid fall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. It initially seemed hesitant, trying to determine which way the wind was blowing, to walk both sides of street, expressing support for long time allies but concern about regime violence and human rights. Having now responded more effectively, it is challenged to more clearly and forcefully set out the principles of its policy: (1) that in the popular struggle against autocratic rulers the U.S. will always stand on the side of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Thus, the brutality not only of Bashar Asad and Muammar Gaddafi but also of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the Al Khalifa in Bahrain will need to unequivocally be condemned and (2) that the U.S. will respect the will of the people and not interfere in the internal affairs of newly-formed Arab democratic governments. This would include acceptance of mainstream Islamists, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahada, participation in elections and in government. 

Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the more difficult and seemingly intractable issue. U.S. policymakers face newly empowered Arab publics (and elected governments) that will be more independent and critical of Israel's policies and the administration's perceived inability to stand up to the Netanyahu government. If, as the administration has indicated, it wishes to re-engage the peace process, it will have to move from a peace "process" to real and substantive action and consequences. Obama will need to return to and fulfill his promises in Cairo regarding illegal Israeli settlements. If Netanyahu remains intransigent and no progress is made by September, Obama needs to fulfill his promise by supporting the UN initiative for a Palestinian state within 1967 borders.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, Osama bin Laden's death could be a "game-changer" in Afghanistan. President Obama should take this opportunity to meet his political promise to begin a draw down of troops in July, signaling the beginning of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistan government's recent indication of a willingness to jointly work to bring a negotiated settlement through peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban should be strongly encouraged by the administration. 

President Obama cannot be expected to address all of the above issues in his speech on May 19. But he will need to effectively respond to the question: "Where will the US go from here?" by setting out a new US framework for US-Muslim world relations and announcing specific policies and actions to achieve his administration's goals. 

*****

John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. Esposito specializes in Islam, political Islam from North Africa to Southeast Asia, and Religion and International Affairs. He is editor-in-chief of the four-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, The Islamic World: Past and Present, and the six-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World and Oxford Islamic Studies Online. His more than forty five books include The Future of Islam, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (with Dalia Mogahed), Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Politics, Political Islam: Radicalism, Revolution or Reform?, Islam and Democracy (with J. Voll).

Source: Huffington Post 


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  1 Comment   Comment

  1. Bak Tanus from Sweden

    Lets cut out all this silly blather and view Obama's upcoming speech in the singularly courageous words of Robert Fisk in his article, 'President's fine words may not address the Middle East's real needs' - in today's edition of the Independent:

    .."I rather think that the Americans suffer from what the Israelis suffer from: self-delusional arguments. The Americans keep referring to the goodness of Islam, the Israelis to how they understand the "Arab mind". But they do not. Islam as a religion has nothing to do with it, any more than Christianity (a word I don't hear much of these days) or Judaism. It's about dignity, honour, courage, human rights - qualities which, in other circumstances, the United States always praises - which Arabs believe they are owed. And they are right. It is time for Americans to free themselves from their fear of Israel's lobbyists - in fact the Likud Party's lobbyists - and their repulsive slurs of anti-Semitism against anyone who dares to criticise Israel. It is time for them to take heart from the immensely brave members of the American-Jewish community who speak out about the injustices that Israel as well as the Arab leaders commit." .." Mr Obama and his equally gutless Secretary of State have no idea what they are facing in the Middle East. The Arabs are no longer afraid. They are tired of our "friends" and sick of our enemies. Very soon, the Palestinians of Gaza will march to the border of Israel and demand to "go home". "