America's troubled relationship with the Islamic world was the topic at a recent conference held by The World Affairs Council of Washington along with the League of Women Voters and the American Academy of Diplomacy. Since Islam is now the world's fastest growing religion with some 1.2 billion adherents, conference speakers said reaching a proper understanding of it and of Muslim opinion is urgent.
John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said Muslims today feel under attack. "The fact is across the Muslim world today, not among extremists, but among mainstream Muslims, the belief is that what they are seeing for many of them is a war against Islam in the Muslim world," he says. "And I think one needs to ask why?"
The reason, according to conference participants, is to a large extent the war in Iraq, which they opposed. Edward Gnehm, professor of international relations at George Washington University and a former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait, was emphatic.
"Iraq- a cataclysmic decision without question. Extremely unpopular in the Middle East," he says. "Our Arab friends, the king of Jordan, offered advice in a very friendly way: don't go there militarily."
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at Washington's Wilson Center, said a solution to the war requires the help of surrounding Muslim countries. "I think you need to call in the neighbors," she says. "I mean you can't get peace in Iraq without having the participation of the Iranians, the Turks and the Syrians. They have to be a part of the future of Iraq."
Mr. Esposito said the West often fails to distinguish between mainstream Muslims and extremists.
"What we are faced with today and what any administration will be faced with is in fact a relationship with the Muslim world that requires on the one hand going after terrorists and on the other hand, building bridges with the mainstream," he says. "When I say mainstream, I am talking about people that cut across society, diplomats, business people, military who are concerned about this relationship."
Ambassador Gnehm said there is a tendency to view the United States in the tradition of past imperialism, rather than as a liberator of the Middle East. "We look more and more like the colonial and imperialist powers that the Arabs got rid of decades ago," he says. "But we now are part of the problem, where we as Americans see ourselves and thought of ourselves as going there as a solution to the problem."
Mr. Gnehm said an over-riding concern of Muslims is the ever-festering Arab-Israeli conflict. "Peace process- there isn't a more important issue in the Middle East than the Arab-Israeli dispute to Arabs," he says. "If anybody tells you otherwise, they either don't know what they are talking about or they have another agenda. Believe you me Arabs want to see a solution to that dispute."
But speakers also warned against putting too much blame on the United States and the West. There is plenty to go around in the Muslim world as well, said Mrs. Esfandiari. "It is not always the West that is at fault when it comes to the region," she says. "I think we in the region must also show an effort and a will to advance."
Shibley Telhami, director of the Peace and Development project at the University of Maryland, echoed that opinion. "When you look at the Middle East as a region, not just Arab countries but the Muslim countries, we hear all about their economic, political problems, and they are vast," he says. "The Middle East has enormous problems that are not related to the Arab-Israeli issue, that are not related to America, that are not related to foreign policy."
Mr. Telhami said Middle East countries may have more problems with one another than with the United States.