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A 10-year truce between Islam and the West

Obama should follow his speech in Cairo with a global conference and a call for a 10-year hudna.

By Giuseppe Cassini / June 11, 2009


From the bosom of the world Muslim community, two contrasting voices have been distinctly heard in the wake of President Obama's speech in Cairo. One, arising from the extremists, exhorts jihad. The other, arising from throngs of approving moderates, wants his promises delivered. The voices of the extremists were comparatively feeble, and that is of the utmost significance: It means that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community is poised to accept new proposals coming from Washington, provided they are bold and far-reaching.

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Can Mr. Obama translate his impressive rhetoric into concrete policies? As Roula Khalaf wrote in the Financial Times: "Mr. Obama called for a joint effort to create a new world where extremists no longer threatened Americans, US troops returned home, Israelis and Palestinians lived in secure states of their own and nuclear energy was used only for peaceful purposes. It is an ambitious vision that would transform the Middle East, but it also raises expectations far beyond the US's ability to deliver."

Far beyond? It depends. If Obama extricates himself from the administration's bureaucracy, if he turns a deaf ear to the well-known lobbies infesting the capital, if he follows his own instinct, then, "yes, he can."

In one sense, he's already succeeded in the first two phases of what could amount to a three-phase strategy. Phase 1 was The Denial: In April he went to Turkey to state that "the USA is not at war with Islam and will never be." Phase 2 was The Outreach: In June, he went to Egypt to offer Islam a "new beginning." Phase 3 could be The Two-Track Forum.

Imagine the impact if Washington proposed a two-track forum where the Western countries and the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference would meet in two different but equally legitimate sessions: one limited to the governments (like the 2002 Istanbul Forum) and one open to the civil society at large (religious leaders, tribal elders, political factions, intellectuals, entrepreneurs).

The agenda could be drawn from the successful outcome of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe: respect for sovereignty but also for human rights and fundamental freedoms, self-determination of peoples, peaceful settlement of disputes, and a plea in favor of state secularism. Remember the words uttered by Obama in Cairo: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone…. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."