The Middle East Channel

Whither U.S. engagement with Muslims?

The anniversary of Obama’s "New Beginning" speech in Cairo provides an opportunity to step back and assess the administration’s overall progress in reaching out to the Muslim world. While the jury is still out–and looking shakier week by week–when it comes to major foreign policy issues, it is clear that the White House is charting ...


The anniversary of Obama’s "New Beginning" speech in Cairo provides an opportunity to step back and assess the administration’s overall progress in reaching out to the Muslim world. While the jury is still out–and looking shakier week by week–when it comes to major foreign policy issues, it is clear that the White House is charting a very distinctive course in the broader endeavor of building relationships with Muslims. There has been much discussion of specific successes and failures in the follow-up to the Cairo speech, and a veritable growth industry of Muslim engagement initiatives has appeared within the Beltway since last summer. But there may be a deeper conceptual problem: to the extent that it succeeds, "Muslim engagement" may begin to reinforce the very sense of exceptionalism it was intended to refute.

Obama’s speech in Cairo pointedly addressed major political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iraq before attempting to shift the subject towards the grounds for cooperation. But in the post-Cairo period, the administration’s most publicly visible "Muslim engagement" initiatives have tended towards the other end of the spectrum–shying away from those foreign policy issues in favor of engagement around more mundane issues of shared interest. Middle East peace and democratization were never intended to figure centrally in the portfolios of the administration officials charged with implementing pieces of the Muslim engagement dossier. Farah Pandith, appointed as the Secretary of State’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities (a turn of phrase preferred by the current administration to signal its focus on diverse Muslim peoples rather than a monolithic bloc styled as the "Muslim world") in June 2009 just after the Cairo speech, has focused on youth engagement and people-to-people opportunities. The White House has been touting educational and research exchanges, as well as the science envoys it has been sending to Muslim majority countries. The recent Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship sought to build partnerships between business communities in the United States and Muslim countries.

Taken as a whole, their efforts represent an important shift in strategy. The central thrust of this administration’s approach emphasizes building an infrastructure that can facilitate longer-term partnerships based on shared interests–such as education, science and technology, and making money. The ethos here, in other words, is one of investment. This is undoubtedly the right way to proceed given the administration’s emphasis on establishing a basis for sustainable mutual respect. A simplistic strategy of swapping shiny new hospitals for popularity, in any case, would have insulted the intelligence of America’s interlocutors in the Muslim world.

As laudable as this new strategy may be, it will face several key challenges moving forward:

First and most obviously, there is the danger that a failure to produce tangible results on core political issues, such as peace between Israelis and Palestinians, will impede–and perhaps eventually overwhelm–progress on building broader partnerships. For many Muslims, talk of science envoys and youth engagement, while promising, is of a fundamentally different order of priority. This audience is looking for the "new beginning" Obama announced in Cairo to reflect concrete changes in U.S. foreign policy. Certainly Middle East peace is of paramount importance here, and recent wavering over Israeli settlements and the Gaza crisis–thrown into stark relief by the aid flotilla assault earlier this week–threaten to exhaust the goodwill created last June. And the more the United States is out of tune with international sentiment on these issues, the more difficult it will be to carry a changing world–witness Turkey’s new assertiveness on the global stage–along with it on other crucial issues.

Second, when it comes to the question of democracy in the Muslim world, many see a U.S. administration more keen to reinforce status quo support for authoritarian regimes than to push for meaningful political reform. While claims of "Bush nostalgia" among democracy activists in the Middle East are over-stated (and the previous administration’s democratization thrust tied more to procedural aspects of democracy such as elections rather than to fostering genuine political pluralism), it is nevertheless important for Obama to clarify that his efforts to resettle U.S. relations with the Muslim world does not simply mean reverting to business as usual when it comes to support for liberalized autocracies in the Middle East and elsewhere. As Michelle Dunne, Amr Hamzawy and Nathan Brown have suggested, raising the public profile of outreach to certain moderate Islamist parties in the Middle East–the region’s most consistent practitioners of democracy in recent years–might at least help to send a signal that the U.S. is serious about fostering a broader spectrum of participatory politics.

Finally, there is the question of the future of Muslim engagement itself. This is the first time in its history that the United States has pursued a broad-based, global outreach strategy towards any one particular religious community. Given the dire state of America’s reputation among Muslims by the end of the Bush administration, it is certainly understandable why such an initiative was deemed necessary. But there is also a risk that, over time, singling Muslims out as being in need of special engagement becomes a hindrance to normalizing relations insofar as it begins to look like a new form of exceptionalism. We will know that the Muslim engagement strategy has worked not when it becomes institutionalized, but rather when the activities that currently fly under this banner blend seamlessly into the broader panoply of U.S. global outreach, as they did prior to 9/11. In other words, we should yearn for a day when "engaging global Muslim communities" sounds like an odd thing for the United States to be doing.

Peter Mandaville teaches political science and Islamic studies at George Mason University, where he co-directs of the Center for Global Studies. He is the author, most recently, of Global Political Islam.

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