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A reinvigorated US engagement with the Muslim world is needed - 2013-03-10

By Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, Today’s Zaman – 10 March 2013

Since much of the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and Asia, are in the midst of laborious transformation, the United States must look to multilateral approaches, particularly with the Muslim world, to meet the realities of assisting these nations.

Many of these countries are striving to end a cycle of conflict or are searching for a new direction; multilateral regional security and economic frameworks will be a necessary part of the international community’s support.

US policymakers need to deepen their debate on policy objectives for a post-superpower era and forge a vision to meet the requirements of the new global geopolitical situation.

Many observers caution the US administration not to try to impose its will on societies in transition out of concern that it may backfire due to the negative reputation of the US, particularly in Muslim-majority countries. Yet the same observers also suggest that it would be wrong to withhold support from the people who long for democratic and pluralistic societies. Nobody can deny that anti-US and anti-Western sentiments are one of the vital bloodlines of the extremist forces in ascendency from West Africa to South East Asia within Muslim communities. There is frustration and desperation caused by extreme poverty and a lack of economic opportunities, as well as tribal and inter-communal conflicts. Along with a lack of accountability, good governance and political representation and the negative effects of corruption and climate change on the livelihood of so many have provided fertile ground for the proliferation of extremists.

The exploitation of grievances from Afghanistan to Yemen and from Somalia to Mali enabled them to find local allies or sympathizers and it seems that some US policies reinforced this trend.  However, the militant activism of these extreme forces does not come close to representing the majority -- or even a meaningful minority -- in Muslim communities.

The US may have created a perfect storm by unleashing certain dynamics through its Cold War policies, including empowering the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s, by not showing empathy towards the rights and sufferings of the Palestinian people, by supporting regimes that did not enjoy domestic popular support, and by invading Iraq. These interactions have overshadowed US assistance to Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and later in Kosovo which brought no permanent credit that it should have received otherwise.

From Sept. 11, 2001 to the end of President George W. Bush’s term, counterterrorism prevailed in public diplomacy initiatives, including the engagement with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).  The traumatic legacy of Sept. 11 on US public opinion weakened the effects of the visionary arguments calling for better relations with the Muslim world.

Despite these challenges, both the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held discussions in September 2008 on the report titled “Changing Course: A new direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.” That same year, institutional engagement between the US and the OIC was established by the appointment of the first US special envoy to the OIC by then-President George W. Bush. Then, in 2009, at the beginning of his first term, President Obama announced his intention to launch a new beginning with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and interests, echoing the call of the OIC secretary-general.

Various projects designed to engage with Muslim communities were initiated by the Obama administration and the State Department under the leadership of Secretary Clinton, particularly civil society and youth organizations. President Obama also appointed a special envoy to the OIC. Research, debates and initiatives conducted in this framework later proved to be valuable for the US administration in coping with the transformation fueled by the so-called “Arab Spring.”

As new challenges as well as new hopes have emerged since 2008, it is time for Congress to have a new round of discussions to review the progress achieved and assess the challenges facing US-Muslim relations.

There are pressing challenges ahead that require not only continuing the US-OIC partnership, but also diversifying and deepening it. Secretary Kerry has been a regular attendee of the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum meetings. With his deep understanding of the current challenges in the relationship, he can personally play an important role in changing the course.




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