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John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito

Posted January 28, 2009 | 12:45 PM (EST)

Obama and the Muslim World: Building a New Way Forward


After eight years of the Bush administration, the Arab and Muslim world and many others in the global community greeted an Obama presidency with great expectations. Obama himself in his inaugural address subtly distanced himself from the Bush legacy and expressed the desire that America re-emerge as a global and principled leader. He spoke of a departure from "our legacy," the sacrifice of principles and values, in the name of fighting a war on terrorism and the need to exercise our power wisely and morally: "Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. ... our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." Finally, he called for a reappropriation and return to our legacy, "We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more [return to], we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.

Speaking directly to the Muslim world, Obama called for a new way forward: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

But how should Obama reach out to the Muslim world post Gaza?

The U.S. will need to reemphasize its support not only for the existence and security of the state of Israel but the creation, security and support for a Palestinian state as well as criticism of illegitimate acts of violence and terror not only committed by Palestinians but also by Israelis. Successful negotiations will require that both Hamas and the Israeli government stop the use of violence and terror. However, the process can not begin with preconditions such as a one-sided pre-condition that HAMAS change its Charter, formally recognize Israel's right to exist etc. This would then require an equivalent precondition that Israel recognize the HAMAS government, its (Israel's) occupation of Arab lands, the refugee issue, and its building of illegal settlements.

Qatar and Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia and non-state actors can play a role. Qatar and Turkey in particular have relations with Israel but also been outspoken in their criticism of Israeli policies in Palestine and harsh in their denunciations of Israel's war in Gaza. Qatar's Emir has pledged significant financial support for rebuilding destructed areas of Gaza. Massive demonstrations by Turks protesting the war in Gaza and Erdogan's statements have had a deep impact on the Arab psyche at a time when the masses in the Arab world are in search of leadership.

In terms of inter-Palestinian reconciliation between HAMAS, Fatah and other organizations, the newly appointed US envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, may wish to adopt Northern Ireland model he developed in those negotiations.

The Obama administration will need to move quickly to redress the Bush administration's engagement in a policy of "moral exceptionalism" and abuse of power in the name of national security which has not only undermined America's moral authority and standing abroad but the civil liberties of countless individuals and groups at home. Following up on his inaugural speech, it should lead with diplomacy--whenever possible--rather than the threat of military intervention or force. It should move quickly to reach out and listen to not only with governments but with the Muslim mainstream: reformist and opposition leaders and organizations, and civil society organizations. Partnership with mainstream Muslims is essential to isolate or marginalize the terrorists.

The U.S. faces a Muslim world with deep grievances. However, it both feels disrespected and fears Western intervention, invasion, and domination, but also admires the West, the U.S., in particular for its technology, freedoms, and democracy. As the Gallup World Poll, the largest, most systematic poll of the Muslim world found both the mainstream and potential want better relations with the West, coexistence not conflict. However, many believe that the West, in particular the US, uses a double standard in its promotion of democracy and human rights.

Therefore, U.S. public diplomacy should address not only public relations (through educational initiatives and exchange programs) but also key foreign policy issues. Gallup findings (See, John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think) indicate a desire for the respect (reflected in Obama's inaugural speech). When asked what the West could do to improve relations, majorities reported that it should respect Islam and Muslims, not consider them inferior, and provide technological, economic assistance. Coming on the heels of the devastation in Gaza, major development projects (technological, economic and educational) should be initiated in Gaza and expanded in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the West Bank.

A new approach to diplomacy will reach out and talk to friends and critics, to those with "clenched fists" and those Middle East governments whose iron fists are often hidden in velvet gloves. Military aid (weapons, training and funding) should be carefully reviewed and limited since more often than not as we have seen in Arab countries and Israel/Palestine, such aid is not simply used for defense. The administration should pressure and incent our authoritarian Arab allies to build up strong civil societies.

Both before and even more in the aftermath of the war in Gaza, Israel-Palestine looms large as a major grievance and obstacle to peace in the region and improvement in U.S.-Muslim world relations. As Gallup Polling (Oct 2008), pre Gaza war, found while closing the Guantanamo detention facility would significantly improve attitudes toward the United States, it did not match the level of support for U.S. pressure on Israel among many in the Arab world and beyond. Majorities of citizens in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon said that increasing pressure on Israel would improve their view of the United States "very significantly." Thus, the Israeli/Palestinian issue rates as more significant to perceptions of the U.S. than closing down Guantanamo.

The Obama administration will have to transcend America's policy of "Israeli Exceptionalism," privileging Israeli interests. A more even-handed policy would require that Israel as well as HAMAS and the Palestinians be held to the same standards to respect and comply with international law and U.N. resolutions. A more balanced and credible approach will begin to restore America's image in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Obama will also have to avoid a legacy of political engineering (a preference for putting in and or supporting our guy to elections) that predates George W. Bush but was also adopted by his administration in countries like Iraq and backfired in Palestine.

Bush sought to marginalize Yasser Arafat purportedly to promote democratization. Initial support for the Palestinian presidential election of 2005 and Mahmoud Abbas' victory backfired with the election of Hamas in January 2006 in free and fair elections. In an attempt to "bolster moderates" and marginalize Hamas, the U.S. supported economic sanctions and a blockade and siege by Israel, while funding and supporting the electoral loser, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A reality-based, pragmatic American foreign policy, whatever it may think of HAMAS, must remember and respect the fact that the people of Palestine made their choice in democratic elections. It was not just a choice but, for many, a protest vote against Fatah, the PA and corruption. The vote also reflected the belief that negotiations had produced nothing and armed resistance and violence brought Israel's disengagement from Gaza.

The Obama administration's new policy should seek to work with all the players, HAMAS, the PNA and Israel. The current Palestinian and Israeli leadership and Olmert's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu will not make this easy. Ignoring, marginalizing or attempting to eliminate HAMAS and simply recognize or perhaps more accurately resurrect Abbas ignores the realities on the ground. As the 2006 presidential elections demonstrated: Abbas did not enjoy widespread respect or support. He has been further weakened by his anointing by the Bush administration and the Israeli government and the continued failings and corruption of the PNA. The perception of Abbas as the US and Israel's man in an attempt to eliminate Hamas, and the perception of Abbas as submissive if not compliant in the Gaza war have only served to erode Abbas's legitimacy among his people.

As for HAMAS, it is not simply a militant (terrorist or resistance) organization based in Gaza but, as its electoral victory demonstrated, a political movement that also enjoys significant support in the West Bank. The Gaza war has rallied Palestinians and Arab and Muslim populations to a totally unexpected degree, one that could affect the region for decades.

The conflict and HAMAS resistance has captured the Arab political imagination and discourse. Gazans and HAMAS enjoyed widespread sympathy and support not only among Islamists but also Arab nationalists, secularists, leftists, and Christians. The 24/7 coverage by the Arab Media with its gruesome scenes of death and destruction, the galvanized public opinion across the political spectrum. The war in Gaza may prove to be the nail in the coffin of Arab nationalism. The Arab League and the Palestinian Authority, and many Arab governments have drawn widespread criticism for their failure to respond and act decisively. As a result, HAMAS and Islamists in general are in a position to consolidate their long-held claim as the only viable option to entrenched authoritarian regimes, secular elites, and the defenders of Palestine and Jerusalem.