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Experts Say in US Outreach to Islamic World, Actions Matter Most


As President Obama prepares to address the Muslim world in a scheduled June 4th speech in Cairo, Egypt, a diverse group of policy experts from academia and the U.S. government gathered in Washington to discuss specific steps the United States can take to improve its relations with the worldwide Muslim community.

Setting the theme at the annual meeting of the non-profit Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, center President Radwan Masmoudi said he applauds the Obama administration's efforts to speak directly to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. But Masmoudi said the United States must also listen to what the world's Muslims have to say.

"…the U.S. needs to engage the Muslim world in a serious dialogue, and we need to listen, to listen to their concerns, to their aspirations. And dialogue will open many channels and many opportunities for peace, for reconciliation, for democracy and human rights."

Actions must match words

Masmoudi said he believes there are high hopes among many Muslims around the world that the Obama administration will match its rhetoric about closer ties with the Muslim world with concrete actions, especially in pursuing peace in the Middle East.

That point was echoed by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. Telhami said no matter how soothing President Obama's rhetoric might be, many Muslims around the world still perceive America's eight-year-old War on Terror as a veiled assault on Islam. In Telhami's view, Muslims are going to make their judgments about the United States based on U.S. policies and how they affect the issues central to their lives.

"The issues that they care about are very obvious. First is the Arab-Israeli issue, second, the wars that the U.S. is conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan," he said. "And the third is the presence of American forces in the region. And then of course there are a lot of other issues pertaining to the relationship with different countries and different regimes."

Telhami said President Obama should move quickly, in concert with America's regional partners, to demonstrate that the War on Terror is not a war on Islam. An important step, Telhami said, would be for Obama to begin reducing the heavy American military presence in the Arab world and to show that the United States can be an honest broker in any Middle East peace.

Arab-Israeli conflict key

Indeed, sustained U.S. efforts to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict will be key to improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world, says Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress.

"What we need today is a peaceful resolution of this conflict and a just resolution to this conflict. This will require an active, unrelenting commitment to keep the U.S. as a power that deals even-handedly and as an honest broker between the parties."

Ellison said he believes President Obama has the political muscle to convince pro-Israel members of Congress that a U.S.-brokered peace agreement in the Middle East would serve the interests not just of the Palestinians and the region's Arab states but of Israel as well.

Support for human rights, democracy crucial

Harvard University visiting professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a well-known Egyptian human rights defender and democracy activist, believes another barrier to better U.S. relations with the world's Muslims is continued U.S. support of undemocratic regimes in some Islamic countries. Ibrahim told the Washington gathering that President Obama must offer Muslims some basic reassurances.

"That he is on the side of human rights and democracy for all and that he will cooperate on this basis and that will be at least one of the principle pillars of American foreign policy. That's very important to adopt, to realize and to announce very early on," he said. "The challenge now is to sustain that drive and to stay the course to the very end and not to give up midway as George Bush did."

Ibrahim noted that many undemocratic governments in the Muslim world tightened their grips after the Bush administration refused to recognize the Palestinian election victory of Hamas, the radical Islamist group that now governs Gaza. But Madelyn Spirnak, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs, saw no inconsistency.

"The U.S. government remains committed to democratic principles and human rights and will continue to support those in the Middle East and throughout the world who seek to enjoy these universal freedoms. As President Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address, America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."

That's a message, these Washington experts agreed, that the world's Islamic cultures can welcome.

The Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy has sent an open letter to President Obama, signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders and scholars. It urges the president to make democracy promotion a priority in his bid to improve relations between the United States and communities of Muslims around the world.

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