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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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.