Obama's State of the Union With the Muslim World

07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the first time in nearly two decades, the US has the upper hand in the Middle East and could be on the verge of turning the tide in the relentless propaganda war waged between Washington and Al-Qaeda, among others. But there are urgent steps - and bold initiatives - the Obama administration must take if it hopes to drive Al-Qaeda out of the caves and into the trash-bins of history.

The US must now work in tandem with such institutions as the Organization of the Islamic Conference to establish a quorum of policy-makers who will draft initiatives and identifiable goals. Both parties should declare a three-phased approach to resolving conflict and ending the war on terror: Intention, implementation and accountability.

Barack Obama already outlined his administration's intent in Cairo but must now enact concrete measures, such as exert pressure on Israeli leaders to halt illegal settlement expansion and commit to withdrawing from existing ones as part of land-for-peace agreement.

It is these actions, called for by his detractors, which will convert Obama's words into new realities.

The Muslim World must respond with bold initiatives of its own, not least of which are efforts to promote tolerance, pluralism, education and equitable rights for women. Muslim clerics must outlaw hate speech and curb the growth of extremist elements within their own ranks.

For its part, the Arab League must exert pressure to force Hamas and Fatah to lay down their arms, stop firing at each other and at Israelis, and form a unity government so that stalled Middle East peace talks can resume. By doing so, the Palestinians will have removed excuses the Israelis have been using to avoid returning to the negotiating table.

The Muslim World cannot afford to wait nor allow the momentum to be seized by others; on June 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will soon deliver a peace initiative of his own. The Arab League is yet to respond to Obama's speech.

To borrow a clichéd mannerism, both the Obama administration and Muslim states must now walk the talk.

To create a mechanism for measuring accountability one need look no further than the US Constitution's Article II which created the concept of the State of the Union address - an annual review of economic, social, and security policies which was also used to chart the course ahead.

Obama's Cairo address has created a union of intent and goodwill with the Muslim World; much may be gained if this contract is renewed and reviewed every year by the highest cadres of the Obama administration in a different Muslim country every year.

Many in the Middle East cling to the hope that Obama will seize on this historic opportunity to expunge eight years of poorly-developed and increasingly divisive US foreign policies which seemed to be based on the theory that the West was on a collision course with the Muslim East.

As the son of Kansan and Kenyan parents and now the most powerful man on the planet, the US president may be in the best position to reverse the clash of cultures which has led to a world divided by conflict. He himself epitomizes the coming together of distinct pasts: raised a Christian, his father is of Islamic heritage; an American, he has grown up in the midst of Islamic culture in three continents.

And this is Obama's greatest advantage... an advantage and momentum that must not be squandered.

On June 4, 2010, Obama could possibly deliver an address in Jakarta, Indonesia or Muscat, Oman to report on the health of relations between the US and the Muslim World and the progress achieved in reaching the goals established by the quorum of policy-makers.

Failure to keep the Muslim World engaged by continuing channels of communication and establishing trust-building measures could deal a severe blow to East-West dialogue.

The Muslim World has become increasingly distrustful of US policies and intentions over the past two decades, but the fact that Obama's speech was received with accolades by many Muslims means they are willing to give Washington one last token of a chance to mend fences.

Yes, there was the usual round-up of detractors who found seemingly legitimate grounds to criticize the president's speech.

While Obama pushed for a global forum in which conflicts could be averted through diplomacy, mutual respect and understanding, several of Egypt's opposition groups boycotted his speech chastising him for covertly supporting their arch-nemesis, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Outside Egypt, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians, Israelis and Americans found distinct but mutually inclusive issues to complain about. In Baghdad, Mosul and Ramadi, Iraqis wondered how talk of a new chapter in US-Islamic relations could end the illegal occupation, and return them to a semblance of security and normalcy (attacks against Iraqis and US forces have been on the rise).

They want stable electric power, clean water, job opportunities and safety from ambitious neighbours and the now dormant, but equally threatening militias.

The Palestinians want the Israelis to end their occupation, dismantle illegal settlements, and tear down the security barrier they have termed the Apartheid wall, resume peace talks, lift the siege on Gaza, allow 1948 refugees the right of return, and accept the re-floated Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

The Iranians want Obama to go beyond mere rhetoric and accept their right to what they say is a civilian nuclear programme. The Israelis want Obama to deter the "Iranian threat" and understand their reasons for refusing to endorse a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians; Israeli settlers say Obama has sold them out.

Back home, Obama was criticized by some Republicans as being "un-American" and pandering to terrorism.

But no matter what side of the aisle they are on, the consensus in the Middle East agrees that Obama's speech has created a momentum and the potential for a new chapter in US-Muslim relations.

If the US fails to deliver and build on the positive vibes emanating from Cairo, it is likely Muslims will never again trust any US official.

Such a failure would also work to Al-Qaeda's advantage; they could easily pronounce "we told you so" to the Muslim World that Obama was not to be trusted.

The US has charged and seized the hill; it must never again create the conditions which would allow Al-Qaeda to regain a media foothold.

Otherwise, it will be US policies that will be found in the trash-bins of history.