Can Obama's Vision for US Relations with Muslim World be Implemented?
Many in the Muslim World have responded positively to Obama's speech, showing that there is a widespread desire there for improved relations with the United States. Many other Muslims, though, have reacted negatively. Their criticism, however, has focused less on what Obama said than on expressing skepticism over whether what he said can be implemented.
This, of course, is a legitimate question. Obama is not the first American president who has voiced a desire for improved relations between the United States and the Muslim World. Achieving this goal, however, has proven elusive. Former president George W. Bush in particular spoke about wanting to improve Muslim-American relations, primarily within the prism of his global democratization campaign. But relations ended up becoming far worse during his presidency. Will President Obama's initiative be more successful than those of previous presidents?
President Obama stated near the start of his speech, "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect." He then set forth an agenda of issues that, "we must finally confront together." These issues are not new. The problem for US-Muslim relations in dealing with them in the past was that each side often perceived itself as having very different interests.
Obama's acknowledging Muslim concerns about the US presence in Afghanistan, the circumstances that drove the Bush administration to invade Iraq, and the prison at Guantanamo indicate that the new administration is more sensitive to Muslim viewpoints than its predecessor. Obama, though, made it clear that while he intends to close the Guantanamo prison and withdraw US troops from Iraq, Washington intends to continue fighting against violent extremism both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
Obama may actually succeed in obtaining more cooperation, not just from the Pakistani government, but also the Pakistani public in the struggle against violent extremism there. This is because recent events have changed attitudes. Many Pakistanis previously had a romantic notion about how the Taliban only wanted to establish Islamic rule, and believed that the militants must be better than the corrupt, inefficient US-backed Pakistani government. But the Taliban's bad behavior in the Swat Valley has helped educate many Pakistanis about the actual nature of this militant group. Even if President Obama had not given his speech in Cairo, the Taliban may have unwittingly provided the Pakistani government and society with a strong incentive to cooperate with the United States against it.
On the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama's call for a halt to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank was strongly welcomed by Muslims everywhere. However, his statement that the Israeli-American "bond is unbreakable" is not what Muslim audiences wanted to hear. Still, Muslims could not reasonably expect Obama to say otherwise. Even if an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is not reached, Obama's willingness to pressure Israel on the settlements -- which arguably do not enhance Israeli security anyway -- could increase the willingness of Muslim governments and publics to cooperate more with the United States.
Obama's expressed desire to improve relations with Iran, while remaining firm in his opposition to Tehran's acquisition of nuclear weapons did not please the Iranian government. But there may soon be a political transition in Tehran, and the US president's comments were received more favorably elsewhere in the Muslim World. Muslims in other countries wish to see a softer American approach to Iran than the Bush Administration exhibited, yet many -- especially in the Arab World -- are just as fearful about the prospects of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons as Israel and the West are.
Concerning democratization, Obama stated that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." But he also made clear that the United States would welcome democratization in the Muslim World. This part of his speech may not have pleased anyone in the Muslim World: he was too supportive of democratization as far as the Muslim World's many authoritarian regimes are concerned, but not sufficiently supportive of it for those who hope for democratic change there.
Obama's approving references to how Muslim women are free to wear the hijab in the United States were hardly designed to endear him to secular forces in Turkey (or France). On the other hand, this was something that appealed to religiously-inclined Muslims everywhere -- including Turkey and France.
The main problem in trying to improve America's relations with the Muslim World is that the it is not at all monolithic. The interests of some Muslim countries not only oppose those of some non-Muslim ones (particularly Israel), but also oppose those of other Muslim countries. And within Muslim countries, there are frequently differences between governments and publics, and between different Muslim sects and ethnic groups.
Even with the best of intentions, it will not be possible for Obama to please the entire Muslim World. But if his Cairo speech helps the United States improve relations with some parts of the Muslim World, this will be an improvement.
Mark N. Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.
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