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John L. Esposito Headshot

A Paradigm to Jump-Start U.S.-Muslim Relations

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In what has the potential to be a transformative historical moment, President Barack Obama called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect." While acknowledging the ups and downs of Muslim-West relations, periods of co-existence and cooperation as well as conflict and religious wars, he challenged both America and Muslims globally to fixate not on differences but on building a new way forward based on our common humanity, shared values and interests.

Obama's address reveals his awareness of the findings of major polls, like the Gallup World Poll (see Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think) - that the deep differences that divide are about respect for Islam and the value of Muslim lives and about American foreign policy not religion or a clash of civilizations. Obama demonstrated a desire to address and redress political concerns and grievances in hot spots, ranging from Palestine and Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. He emphasized the need for diplomacy over military responses: his plans to pull out of Iraq and to use temporary military power in Afghanistan in coalition with some forty six countries. Most importantly, Obama promised aid for economic and educational development to assist Pakistanis and Afghans.

Equally important, the president was crystal clear in communicating his respect for Islam and Muslims, "partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." He singled out Muslims past accomplishments as well as Islam's place in America: "Islam has always been a part of America's story.... And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch." While the president indicated an awareness of the problems of discrimination that some American Muslims have faced and still face, much more must be done to address the impact of Patriot Act and Secret Evidence on the civil liberties of Muslims and its devastating affect on families.

Barack Obama was equally direct and candid with his Muslim audience, speaking out against crude stereotyping of America as a self-interested empire and addressed multiple issues: religious freedom, Christians in the Arab world, anti-Semitism, women's status, religious extremism, political authoritarianism and human rights. He balanced his critique and prescription with respect and the need for partnership, not unilateral action, in building a new way forward.

On perhaps the most difficult issue, Palestine - Israel, Obama identified the heart of the problem: the equal and competing claims and aspirations of two peoples with very different narratives. He balanced his emphasis on America's unbreakable bond with Israel by recognizing the tragic plight of both Muslim and Christian Palestinian the pain of dislocation from their "homeland" and "occupation" with its daily humiliations. Characterizing the Palestinian situation as intolerable, he declared: "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."

But the real challenge will be moving both sides forward. To do this, the U.S. administration will need to acknowledge that not only the Palestinians but also Israelis are guilty of acts of illegitimate violence and terror. Just as there cannot be real peace unless the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist and be secure, there cannot be a peaceful and secure Palestine unless the current Israeli government retracts any notion of a "Greater Israel," recognizes U.N. resolutions regarding the return to pre-1967 borders. This means not just freezing but rolling back illegal settlements.

A remarkable and potentially far reaching statement missed my many, the strongest of an American president in many years, is Obama's recognition that Jerusalem belongs to all three Abrahamic faiths: "All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims."

Like previous American presidents, Obama faces a critical issue of how to work with authoritarian Arab and Muslim regimes while also supporting calls by secular and mainstream Islamist leaders in Egypt and across the Muslim world for greater power sharing. Obama underscored the responsibility of Arab and Muslim rulers and leaders for developing more democratic societies: giving people a say in how they are governed, confidence in the equal administration of justice, to have governments that don't steal from them, and the freedom to live as they choose. He stressed that this is not because they are American ideas but fundamental human rights. How his administration's policies will reconcile support for Muslim autocrats with the democratic aspirations of their populations remains to be seen.

Barack Obama's Cairo address, in what may prove to be an historic event, was a major step forward in changing the course of American-Muslim relations. It is a big a step on a path which, as he acknowledges, will take years and present challenges to multiple and diverse audiences. It spoke first and foremost to Muslim communities but also to all Americans. His message on the need for a new beginning, marked by recognizing not only our differences, past and present, but also our interdependence, shared values and common interests represents a new mindset and paradigm for U.S.-Muslim World relations.