Obama & Muslim World: Changing Course

Obama & Muslim World: Changing Course

Some right-wing Americans are critical of President Barak Obama”s approach toward the Muslim world; some Arabs are skeptic, on the other hand. But there is a consensus among both sides that it”s early to judge; and the world is watching and waiting for Obama”s policies toward the Muslim world to crystallize and bear fruit.
34 high-profile American leaders, coming from various backgrounds, affiliations, and faiths, have agreed “that the US policy toward Muslims has been a failure [before Obama became president]” and that there is a need for a new approach, S. Abdallah Schleifer, Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and former Alarabiya Washington DC Bureau Chief, told IslamOnline.net.

Schleifer is member of the American bipartisan “Leadership Group on US-Muslim Engagement”, alongside Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State; Thomas Dine, former AIPAC executive director; Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); Dennis Ross, former US special Middle East envoy; and 29 other senior figures. They all took part in composing the report “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations With the Muslim World.”

For two years, the Leadership Group has examined how the US relations with the Muslim world could be improved.

“I have been in many conferences over the years,” says the veteran journalist who has covered the Middle East since the 60″s.”We would present a paper and go home. But this time, we didn”t present a paper. It was, instead, a discussion. For the first time I felt we were going to accomplish something, to make a real difference, to make a change.”

The Strategy Ahead

The report produced by the Group, a “policy paper” as Prof. Schleifer describes it, presents “a new strategy” for US-Muslim relations, advises on how this strategy is to be implemented, and makes recommendations for leaders and citizens.  
The “new strategy” it sets up is based on four main “pillars”: 1. Elevating diplomacy, engaging both allies and adversaries; 2. supporting efforts of good governance and promoting civic participation in Muslim countries; 3. helping catalyze job-creating growth in Muslim countries; and 4. improving mutual respect between Americans and Muslims around the world.

Some Arab observers have concerns over whether the Obama Administration”s policies toward the Muslim world will be substantially different from those of previous administrations, in light of America”s historically strong relations with Israel and the influence of the Israeli lobby in the US; some Arab analysts don”t expect America to bring a just solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict because of its unconditional support for Israel.

Schleifer points to Indicators that show that President Obama is “changing course” when it comes to US-Muslims relations, and adopting the report that is “in circulation at the highest level in the administration.”

Obama addressed the Muslim world directly in his inauguration speech; he ordered the closure of infamous Guantanomo; and made an unprecedented call upon Iran for dialogue — all moves were directly recommended in the report, which was presented by Albright in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, and “has been received favorably by people close to Obama,” says Schleifer.

More steps are yet to be made by Obama, Schleifer says. He expects the US to engage in dialogue with Iran.

Dialogue-based Policy

“The [Changing Course] report implicitly points to the direction of US dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood [group of Egypt] … and negotiations with Hamas,” he adds.
He speaks of the magnitude of change called for in the report: “During the Bush Administration[“s years], neocons were opposed to any form of negotiation with Hamas, [even indirect negotiations].”

The rise of Hams and Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood in elections was among the issues addressed in the Changing Course report, as the report encourages the US support of “efforts to improve governance and promote civic participation in Muslim countries.”

The report says, “When political openings have allowed militant movements … to gain popular support and win political power through elections, the US has declared them illegitimate. … The US has also sent mixed signals about its willingness to work with non-violent Islamist parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan.”

“Changing Course” lists a number of “criteria that the US can use to judge whether, when, and how to engage in dialogue with armed political groups and movements.”

Despite the broadness of the criteria, Prof. Schleifer is optimistic. He says that the report “implicitly implies dialogue with [groups like] the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.”

Judging by the Bush Administration”s outright rejection of dialogue with Iran and armed entities, Schleifer considers the report”s recommendations to be groundbreaking, since “the report talks about engaging with Iran and the need for altering US policy toward Palestine — and given the [broad] composition of the group.”

The group includes Dennis Ross, who was a supporter of the Iraq war. Ross, however, supports dialogue with Iran. It also includes Thomas Dine, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The composition of the group adds to its credibility, Schleifer believes.

Enlightened Public Diplomacy

The group, however, has no members from the “Muslim World,” with whom it seeks US-engagement. All Leadership Group members are American. According to Schleifer “this is meant to be an American document,” he explains.
The 34-member group of senior leaders comprises 11 Muslims, including Schleifer himself, as well as ISNA”s president Ingrid Mattson and the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies Dalia Mogahed, who is also co-author with John Esposito of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

“Changing Course” calls upon US leaders to “involve the Muslim-American community as a bridge.”

It also recommends the use of public diplomacy. Already public diplomacy was extensively used in the Bush years, an era during which US image in Muslim nations sharply declined.

Schleifer hopes that Obama appoints an American Muslim to be in charge of public diplomacy toward the Muslim world.

He is optimistic as he sees the recommendations his group made in the Changing Course report being implemented. The next step for him is “to further promote understanding and the greater message of the report.

“Every member of the American Leadership Group is to promote the report”s message in their own way.”

Sara Khorshid is the managing editor of IslamOnline.net”s Politics in Depth section. She is an Egyptian journalist who has covered Middle East politics, culture, and society for the past seven years. Her articles are published in the Daily News Egypt, AlArabiya.net, Middle East Times, IslamOnline.net, and other media outlets. Reachable at [email protected]

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