President Obama has so far exhibited unprecedented ambition on the part of a sitting US president to recalibrate the precepts of America’s relationship with Muslims around the world. My hope is that this means venturing beyond oil, conflict resolution and counter terrorism initiatives and into beginning to understand the genuine challenges and aspirations of most citizens in Muslim-majority countries; everyday concerns that often have little to do with Bin Laden and everything to do with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Anti-Americanism in the region is typically borne out of the perception that the United States has little regard for the well-being of the region’s people, and is really only concerned with its national interests, including oil and Israel. As such, its foreign policy, especially toward the Arab world, is seen as limited to containment (usually through supporting local dictatorial regimes in exchange for loyalty), and when that does not work, then military action. Aid to the region, while appreciated by some, is seen by many as a token affair meant to sedate potential unrest.
The success of Obama’s mission in Cairo will largely depend on whether or not he is able to challenge these perceptions and speak to the core aspirations of his audience. Most want the United States to respect their sovereignty, dignity, and right to self-determination. They want the US to refrain from abetting local dictatorships and exploiting the people’s natural resources in the region. They want the West to stop turning a blind eye to the illegal occupation of, and expansion into, the Palestinian territories. They would like the definition of terrorism to be fairly and consistently applied, whether the culprits are a group of extremist outlaws or an irreverent state actor, thereby sending a signal to all that there will not be a double standard for the sanctity of innocent human life.
(For its part, the Muslim world has a lot to do as well, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)
There is no doubt that “Muslim extremism” represents a genuine concern to the United States that cannot and will likely not be ignored by Obama. Still, it has been a long-standing strategic mistake to convince ourselves that violent extremism represents a pervasive or dominant strain among the world’s Muslim populations. Groups like Al Qaeda while dangerous, remain marginal. Contrary to common belief in the West, they are viewed with disdain by mainstream Muslim society; after all, more Muslims have died at the hands of terrorists than people of any other faith. (In areas where they tend to be popular, it is invariably as a result of few choices and opportunities.)
Most Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia lead ordinary lives that put family, personal career development, freedom, dignity, and opportunity first. If Obama succeeds in conveying his acknowledgment and appreciation for this fact, if he can convince audiences of the readiness and willingness of the United States to become an asset – rather than a hindrance – towards those pursuits, then his address can succeed in turning over a new page in US-Muslim relations. Of course, following through with actionable policy will be crucial, if he is to secure long term success.
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