President Barack Obama has moved quickly to follow up on his inaugural statement: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He appointed and sent his special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to the region on an eight day trip. Then on January 28, on Al Arabiya, the prominent Arab satellite TV network, Obama addressed the Arab and Muslim worlds in his first televised interview from the White House.
For many Muslims, eight years of the Bush administration’s war against global terrorism has looked more like the use of terrorism, WMDs and then the promotion of democracy to legitimate a neo-colonial design to redraw the political map of the Muslim world. Conscious of the popular perception and fear that the U.S. has been fighting a war against Islam and Muslims, President Obama sought to counter soaring anti-Americanism and reassure Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy.” Signaling a shift from the perception globally of U.S. arrogance and interventionism, Obama declared that while “we sometimes make mistakes,” America is not a colonial power and hoped for a restoration of “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”
Obama’s message did strike many of the right chords. He spoke directly to the peoples of the Muslim world, not to its rulers. He communicated a sense of respect, humility and at the same time confidence and conviction. His message was one that emphasized the importance of mutual understanding and respect for the peoples of the Muslim world, declaring “my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people…My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” Obama also emphasized a new readiness to listen rather than to dictate.
The 2007 Gallup World Poll findings in more than 35 countries, extending from North Africa to Southeast Asia, underscore the importance of Obama’s addressing the sense of powerlessness, humiliation and lack of respect. (See John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.) When asked in an open ended question what the West could do to improve relations, the most frequent response was respect Islam and Muslims, not consider them inferior. Obama clearly spoke to this concern both in his inaugural and on Al Arabiya: “in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith—and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers—regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.”
Obama’s message of self-criticism and restraint, diplomacy and peace, partnership not unilateralism, resonates with the vast majority of Muslims who like Americans want peace, not war, security, not instability and terrorism, leadership based on partnership, not unilateralism. But they also want to see a respect that is reflected in even-handedness and justice.
The president is correct in stating that “We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful.” However, in a post-Gaza Middle East, the U.S. cannot signal a new approach to U.S.-Middle East foreign policy that has credibility if, while rightly reinforcing America’s commitment to Israel and condemning terrorist attacks, Obama says nothing critical about Israel’s war in Gaza and its use of violence and terror. Israel did not simply attack terrorists and destroy their infrastructure, but Gaza’s elected government and its society. The unrestrained violence and terror unleashed on the people of Gaza, the destruction of much of Gaza’s infrastructure and institutions (homes, neighborhoods, universities and schools, mosques, police stations, hospitals), and the disproportionate loss of civilian life and casualties (1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians vs. 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians) threatens to radicalize a generation of Palestinians.
Obama characterized his approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and his advice to George Mitchell as: “So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved.” This “new” policy will require that the U.S. work with all the players: HAMAS, the PNA and Israel. Whatever it may think of HAMAS, a reality-based, pragmatic American foreign policy, must remember and respect the fact that the people of Palestine (in the West Bank as well as Gaza) made their choice in democratic elections in 2006, electing a HAMAS-led government. The Muslim World remembers that subsequently, the U.S. and Israel chose to boycott and blockade Gaza in an effort to undermine and overthrow the democratically elected government.
As the Gallup World Poll found, both the mainstream Muslim majority and a minority of potential extremists want better relations with the West, coexistence not conflict. Most admire America’s basic principles and values of self-determination, freedoms, democracy and human rights. At the same time, Obama and the U.S. face a Muslim world in which many have deep fears and grievances, fear of Western intervention, invasion, and domination, and the belief that the West, in particular the U.S., uses a double standard in its promotion of democracy and human rights.
While many Muslims are critical of the policies and actions of the U.S., Israel and their own governments, the wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, authoritarian regimes, lack of freedoms and human rights, the majority also reject extremism and terrorism as a response. To restore America’s global image, moral stature and leadership and further weaken the extremists, the Obama administration must both listen to—not necessarily agree with—and not dictate but also seek to work at non-governmental levels with mainstream Muslim organizations and NGOs in addressing these concerns and injustices.