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.

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.

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."

A final compact might be drafted with a bold, yet realistic, aim: to agree on a 10-year hudna, or truce. The hudna is a captivating concept inside Islam and understandable for any insurgent waging war, from Somalia to Pakistan. Obama's speech in Cairo couldn't silence those who exhort jihad, but a call for a 10-year truce could.

The history of Islam is scattered with successful hudnas rather than unrealistic peace treaties: Truces hold better; eternal peace is just a quest. Even radical Islamic factions, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, have at various times in the recent past proposed and sometimes implemented hudnas. Let's not forget that for devout Muslims, it is a religious precept to fight any armed occupier of even a plot of Islamic land. The Muslim community is, of course, highly fractured, so not all actors would necessarily accept such a truce. And its terms and conditions would require careful negotiation. Still, history suggests that it could be a powerful catalyst for reshaping relations between the West and Islam.

Will this two-track forum be too hard to organize? Well, we can easily compare the current clash to the religious war that ravaged Europe from 1618 until 1648. The Thirty-Year War ended only when some 10 major powers plus 180 minor states of Europe found the courage to set up a large congress in Westphalia, Germany, which concluded with a series of multilateral treaties. This was unprecedented. After three decades of deadly feats of arms, it was a unique feat of diplomatic skill – and it was done with no Internet, no telelephone, nor even telegraph to help the envoys. Why should the global Islamic community not agree to such an offer? After all, the fundamentalists are killing far more Muslims than Christians or Jews. What we've seen in recent years has been closer to an Islamic civil war than a clash between us and them. A 10-year hudna would be a blessing in its own right, but it would also allow the global community to tackle far more critical challenges, from extreme poverty to climate change.

A long truce is the minimum we must long for to earn enough time to face these challenges. All of us – Christians and Muslims and Jews – live on borrowed time.

The Europeans are expecting Obama to fly high and think big. Being the son of two continents and culturally rooted in four continents, he is the only world statesman fit to straddle the borders parting Western and Eastern civilizations and lead us toward a new order, embedded in democracy.

Giuseppe Cassini, an Italian diplomat, served in Belgium, Algeria, Cuba, the United States, and the United Nations, and was ambassador to Somalia and Lebanon.

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