Obama's on-target message to Muslims
OK, the US is not at war with Islam. Now what?
Still, enough has been said to recognize that the president wants to unite with Muslims on a broader agenda than fighting Al Qaeda – and to see what he's up against as he tries to turn hopeful rhetoric into meaningful policy.
So far, his outreach has consisted of feel-good words and symbols. This is not a criticism. After all, he's been in office less than three months and has an economic crisis on his hands.
And bridge building does begin with words and attitudes. Since inauguration day, Mr. Obama has been consistent in his message. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said on that bright, cold January day at the foot of the Capitol.
He repeated this phrase multiple times in Turkey. It is what Muslims most want from the United States and the West – or at least the "respect" part is, according to Gallup's multiyear study, "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think," released a year ago.
At the end of January, in an interview with Al-Aribiya, Obama reiterated the "respect" line and added another message: "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." A variation on this theme made headlines in his speech before the Turkish parliament this week. "The United States is not at war with Islam," he emphasized, plainly and unequivocally.
Obama has underscored his sincerity by anchoring his words in his own person, referring to his own Muslim family members and his own childhood in a Muslim country (Indonesia).
Added to this are a multitude of symbolic gestures: early phone calls to Arab leaders, the announcement that the US will close Guantanamo Bay, the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell (of Northern Ireland peacemaking fame) as special envoy to the Middle East, an overture video to Iran, and the trip to Turkey itself (followed by a surprise stop in Iraq).
It will never be time to turn off the rhetoric, but now begins the much harder part of matching policy to words. Next week, Mr. Mitchell will head to Israel and the Palestinian territories to try to revive stalled peace talks. The president will follow in June.
Muslims roundly criticized Obama's silence during Israel's recent war in Gaza. The White House also faces a much more difficult situation now that Israel has elected a center-right government that has not embraced a two-state solution.
Hard policy choices lie ahead that are bound to inflame Muslims and nonMuslims, depending on the path taken. Should the US talk to Hamas? Should it cease antiterrorism airstrikes on Pakistani soil, as most Pakistanis want? How should it proceed with Iran?
And what about the stories of human rights violations that flare up every so often and reinforce stereotypes on both sides? The latest is a new Afghan law about the treatment of Shiite women. It has caused a diplomatic clash between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO countries whose troops have been fighting to help establish democracy in Afghanistan.
In Ankara this week, Obama stated his conviction that "there are not tensions, inevitable tensions, between cultures." His example was Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation – but a secular democracy.
The American president could have also pointed to his former home, democratic Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. On April 9 it holds its third parliamentary elections since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998. The country's motto is "unity in diversity," and therein lies the great challenge for the nondemocratic Muslim world.
Even as Obama extends a hand, autocratic Islamic nations have their own path to tread, one that helps them arrive at "unity in diversity" – the same principles of self-government, liberty, and individual rights that inspired modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Obama should continue his Muslim outreach, being ever mindful of mutual interest and mutual respect. But there is that word "mutual," which implies that bridge building can't be one way. It is a patient process, for both sides.