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Obama starts well with Muslims but must do more

He has to follow up with real engagement.

By Lawrence Pintak / March 16, 2009


Perceptions are a critical piece of the foreign policy matrix. From the perception of the Islamic world, the Obama administration is ticking off many of the right boxes.

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First, President Obama signaled his intention to make a major foreign-policy speech in an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office (details haven't been announced yet). Then one of his first sit-down interviews was with the Arab channel Al Arabiya, in which he talked about his Muslim heritage. Secretary of State Clinton recently visited Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. And now Mr. Obama has chosen Turkey as a key stop on his first presidential foray overseas.

But despite the initial euphoria about the Obama win, cynicism among the world's Muslims still runs deep, particularly here in the Arab world.

Turkey is – quite literally – a bridge between East and West. Istanbul, its cultural capital, straddles the border between Europe and Asia. So, too, its politics. After rocky relations with the Bush administration, Turkey has recently been playing a mediating role between the US and Syria, and will probably do the same with Iran. A vibrant democracy, it offers a model for cooperation in the religious-secular divide of the Islamic world.

A few years ago, I accompanied a group of CEOs from multinational media conglomerates on a visit to Turkey led by Henry Kissinger. Alcohol is banned in Islam. Yet at a gala dinner at his home, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development party, sat with his wife, whose head scarf is a controversial symbol of political Islam in Turkey, as waiters poured wine for the guests. Afterward, there was cognac. It was a vivid sign of this Islamist leader's non-dogmatic approach.

By visiting Prime Minister Erdogan, Obama is overtly reaching out to what Americans would call "moderate" Islamists. Going to non-Arab Turkey also appears to be an effort to separate US relations with Muslim countries from US policy toward the Arab world. The need for that is evident in a recent University of Maryland poll.

Half of all Indonesians and about 80 percent of Egyptians and Turks believe the goal of US policy is to expand Israel's borders. Few buy US claims that it supports a Palestinian state.

With Pakistan on the brink of collapse, Afghanistan soaking up American troops, and a plethora of challenges in the Muslim former Soviet republics, the US needs to find new issues of common cause with would-be allies – or at least intermediaries – in the Islamic world that surmount, or at least distract from, anger at US Middle East policy.