President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world: possibilites and pitfalls

President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world: possibilites and pitfalls

by Dr. Javeed Akhter


President Obama in his stated his desire to reboot US relations with the Muslim world has decided to give a speech in Egypt this Thursday.  As the speech is as much about symbolism as content the choice of Egypt as a venue for this bridge-building exercise is problematic. Egypt is a shabby dictatorship that has little if any any credibility in the Muslim world. His speech in Egypt would end up giving legitimacy to this dictatorship.

Other Muslim countries carry their own baggage.  He certainly could not choose a regressive monarchy like Saudi Arabia, which is at the center of the Muslim theological world as it houses both the cities of Mecca and Medina.  He has already spoken to the Turkish parliament that is struggling to become a functional democracy and gave us a good preview what his speech in Egypt will be.  Iran, Iraq and Pakistan are out of the question. Malaysia and Indonesia are democratic but carry too little weight in the Muslim world as they are seen as being at its periphery.  Although Indonesia as the largest Muslim country in terms of population, its unique geographic make up of over ten thousand islands and President Obama’s child hood link would have been a much better choice.  Egypt he could go to for vacation.

In fact it might have been better if he gave the speech right here in the US from the oval office.  He could have recognized the Muslim American community who are a highly literate progressive and patriotic bunch.  They are a community of physicians, engineers, attorneys, IT people and professionals of every stripe, business men and even a community organizer or two.  The finding of a recent Pew survey that Muslim Americans are mainstream and middle class is a true reflection of the community. The Obama administration so far has barely recognized the existence of this community.

If President Obama could read minds he would see Muslims wondering what he might say about the stereotyping of Muslims.  Will he ask the rhetorical question General Colin Powell asked; “What is wrong with being a Muslim in the US?”  How will he address hot button issues of Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and other Muslim communities which are to the Muslim mind examples of injustice against these groups?  He has acknowledged that US has at times practiced double standards but will he propose concrete solutions to longstanding problems? Muslims are not interested in hearing another lecture on how they should cure themselves.

If his speech addresses these issues it will be a paradigm change in the troubled US Muslim relations.  President Obama would have found the middle ground, whose existence was in doubt.  It is the middle ground where civil discourse and self-criticism reside, where demonification and double standards are homeless. 

If it avoids or skirts these issues change would be slow to come.  Let us not forget that the mistrust between Muslims and the US and West runs deep and is longstanding but not irreversible.

The possibility that the mistrust can be bridged is provided by another PEW survey.  This Pew Global Attitudes survey (14,000 people in 13 nations) revealed that large majorities of Muslims do not see the current conflict as a clash of civilizations. Muslims feel it is the result of geopolitics.  Obama can build on this possibility.

Initiatives to build bridges between Islamic and Western cultures have recently been few.  In particular there were none from the US government.  This makes it all the more remarkable that President Obama has taken the initiative to be the main peace maker between the US and the Muslim world.  Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, an eminent Indian diplomat, noted years ago: “The more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.” 

If president Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world works it would be historic.  Even if does not succeed it would be one of the nobler attempts at sweating for peace. The Muslim world is looking forward to a speech that not only has the soaring rhetoric of hope, but also specific solutions.  The site where it is delivered might be a negative that can be overcome.

Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of an Oak Brook based Muslim American think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute.


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