What’s your reaction to President Obama’s recent statements to the Muslim world that “the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam” and that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation”?
President Obama addressed the Muslim world at his inauguration, saying “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This was hailed as a much needed thawing of American policy, a turning away from the axis of evil mentality of his predecessor, and, even more hopefully, as a rejection of longstanding American foreign policy priorities that have led to the US supporting corrupt and brutal regimes if those regimes supported American financial interests or acted as a bulwark against Russian, community influence in the region.
Expanding on his inaugural statement, this past week President Obama told the Turkish people, “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better – including my own country.”
He also said, “I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds us has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. Let me say this as clearly as I can: the United States is not at war with Islam. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know, because I am one of them.”
Perhaps most important of all, he promised to back these words up with actions: “Above all, we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future. We want to help more children get the education that they need to succeed. We want to promote health care in places where people are vulnerable. We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people. In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes, and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship.
There is an old Turkish proverb: “You cannot put out fire with flames.”
America knows this. Turkey knows this. There are some who must be met with force. But force alone cannot solve our problems, and it is no alternative to extremism. The future must belong to those who create, not those who destroy. That is the future we must work for, and we must work for it together.”
Like his inaugural speech, Obama’s address to the Turkish parliament was well received across the Muslim world, which hopes and yearns for an American foreign policy that seeks democracy, human rights, and just solutions for the entire world.
Obama must, however, live up to his promise to take action if he hopes to truly win over the Muslim world. Rhetoric alone cannot improve relationships.
His silence on Gaza, while claiming he couldn’t speak out because the US only has one president at a time, sounded a deathknell across the Muslim world of the hope that Obama would challenge Israel over Palestinian human rights. The more cynical among us noticed that Obama didn’t decline to comment on other issues, to formulate policies and plan action for his first 100 days, during this very same time frame; his harshest critics point out that if he was free to comment about economic stimulus plans, time frames for withdrawal from Iraq, and beefing up the US military presence in Afghanistan, then so too he was free to comment on the Israeli offensive, and see his silence as nothing more than lily-livered pandering to pro-Israeli lobbyists.
But his Day 1 announcement that Guantanamo was being closed and the US was reaffirming it’s commitment to humane interrogation practices, disavowing such techniques as waterboarding which the previous administration had defended sustains hope in the Muslim world that Obama may still be the President who can make a sea change in how the US views — and treats — the rest of the world.
Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the withdrawal from Iraqi, the US relationship with Iran and dictatorial governments across the Muslim world will all hold far more weight than any speeches he makes. So too, will the treatment of America’s own Muslims. Will Obama reverse losses in civil rights that have affected us all, condemn FBI infiltrators engaged in activities that could be considered entrapment of mosque attendees, and work to lower record levels of hostility to Muslims and Islam in American society? If his rhetoric is followed up by action, President Obama could make a sea-change not only in US-Muslim relations, but also positively influence the direction Muslim society takes in the next few decades.