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How far will Obama's words of respect carry US-Muslim relations?

A new tone can defuse 'residual anger' among Muslims over the Iraq war, but it's likely to hit its limits in dealing with Iran.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2009


President Obama's speech from Cairo University Thursday set a new tone of respect and common purpose in US-Muslim relations. Now comes the testing time for how far a change of tone can actually carry the US toward improved standing in the Muslim world or toward new avenues to addressing old problems.

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For years after the 9/11 attacks, much of the world scolded America over the tone of the Bush administration, saying it had soured relations between Islam and America and had thwarted progress on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Middle East democratization. Mr. Obama, in using a different vocabulary and by reaching out directly to the Muslim populace, is testing that assertion.

"We heard a great deal from sectors as varied as the leaders in Muslim countries to the man in the street that the tone of the Bush administration was a real barrier in improving America's image and in addressing some of the issues of critical importance to the United States," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "President Obama is very much intent on setting a different tone and, by an articulation of that and expressing a commonality of interests, seeing how far that gets us."

The promise of improvement

A different American vision and approach can't help but have some impact, some experts in the region say.

"This speech carried some clear departures from the recent past, and to the extent those words sink in, it can make a difference," says Clovis Maksoud, director of American University's Center for the Global South in Washington.

He points to two stand-out changes in tone: on violence and Islam, and on imposed versus nurtured democratic change. "The perception of the Muslim world that prevailed, especially after 9/11, was of a widely accepted linkage [in America] between terrorism and violence and Islam," Mr. Maksoud says. "Obama deconstructed the template [that] the neoconservatives wanted to prevail."

Beyond that, he says, Obama's characterization of diplomacy will echo positively throughout the Muslim world.

"He's replaced the diplomacy of dictation with the diplomacy of attempted persuasion, and that entails respect for the Muslim people," says Maksoud. "That can go a long way in defusing the residual anger that has existed," especially after the war in Iraq.

The risks of raising expectations

Obama's desire to chart a new course from the Bush administration – or what Obama Thursday called a "new beginning" – did not start in Cairo. In his four months as president, he has delivered three major speeches in foreign capitals – Prague, Ankara, and now Cairo – that aimed to remove old barriers and open the way to resolution of protracted problems, Mr. Clawson says. Think arms control and the East-West divide, democracy in Islam and the redressing of old ethnic wounds, and modernization of the Muslim world.

But taking on these big topics does not mean American policy has changed. Some regional analysts who laud Obama's speech for its new tone also warn that it could raise expectations that, if not met, could lead to deepened frustration and cynicism. In that case, it won't much matter that the new American president – who pointed out to millions of Arabs and Muslims that he carries Muslim heritage as indelibly expressed in his middle name, Hussein – spoke to the people of his vision.