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Obama Seeks Improved Relationship With Muslim World

  • Patsy Widakuswara

Even before his inauguration in January, Barack Obama indicated that he would seek a new relationship with the Muslim world, based on mutual interests and respect. Since taking office, decisions he has made - like closing the Guantanamo Detention Center with a year and banning harsh interrogation techniques on detainees - have been welcomed in the Muslim world. But analysts say a turn around in relations may well hinge on the President's ability to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for a peace deal.

Mr. Obama addressed the Muslim world early in his presidency.

Trip to Turkey well received

He spoke before Turkey's parliament in April.

"The United States is not, and never will be at war with Islam," Mr. Obama said.

The speech was regarded as a dramatic change in tone from the Bush administration.

The change was evident even on Inauguration Day.

"To the Muslim world," he said. "We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Interview with Arab network

And for his first interview as President, Mr. Obama chose an Arab network, Al-Arabiya.

"The way a lot of Arab commentators interpret that interview was that he's willing to work with peaceful Islamist organizations that have taken credible stances to remove themselves from armed militias," David Siddhartha Patel said. Patel is Assistant Professor Middle East Politics at Cornell University.

Real change?

But some Muslim Americans are skeptical there will be real change.

"Rhetorics is nice but we're waiting for action both on the international level and on the domestic front," Ibrahim Hooper said. Hooper is communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"To actually change policies that would actually impact the lives of American Muslims and Muslims around the world," he added.

New policies affect Muslim world

In his first 100 days, the president has put in place policies that directly affect the Muslim world.

He signed an executive order to close Guantanamo prison within a year and he banned the harshest interrogation techniques.

The White House announced it is willing to talk with Iran on its nuclear program, a clear departure from the Bush administration.

On Iraq, the president said he will honor his promise to end US combat operations by late next year.

And he is shifting his focus to Afghanistan, beefing up US forces there.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But President Obama's ultimate test, for Muslims, may revolve around US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Bush was seen as tilting heavily toward Israel and not sufficiently engaged in the peace process.

Mr. Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy was cautiously welcomed by the Arab world.

But some say the chances of an American-brokered peace depend on whether the administration is willing to abandon Mr. Bush's rejection of Hamas, the group that rules the Gaza Strip.

"If, in the approach, one were to attempt to totally marginalize Hamas and to catapult [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas forward, it would signal a double standard -- one that says we don't recognize, not only democratic elections but we feel that the only government we recognize is one with our seal of approval," John Esposito said.

Esposito is Professor International Affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

"Hopefully Obama won't go down that road," he added.

Israel refuses to deal with Hamas because it does not recognize the Jewish state and has not renounced violence.

Late last week, Secretary Clinton argued for keeping American options open on a possible Palestinian unity government that may include Hamas, a move that angered pro-Israeli US lawmakers.

The White House has invited Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders for talks. The administration's ability to coax the parties toward a two-state solution is likely to improve America's standing in the Muslim world.

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