- Bridging the Divide:US Efforts to Engage the Muslim World
In the first six months of his presidency, Barack Obama has clearly signaled his administration's desire to turn a new page in America's relations with the Muslim world. The new President has promoted several dramatic measures designed to restore the United States' tarnished image in the Middle East and beyond. In his inaugural address, Obama issued a call to the Muslim world for "a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo as well as the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) network of secret prisons. He banned the use of torture. He named well-respected diplomat George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East, once again elevating the Middle East peace process as a key foreign policy priority. The new President opted to give his first press interview to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic language satellite television station. The interview was noteworthy in several respects, not least in the President mentioning his Muslim family members and the portion of his childhood spent living in the Muslim world. He underscored the need to listen rather than dictate, and acknowledged the importance of backing words with action. And that was just his first week in office.
President Obama's promise to improve US relations with the Muslim world predates his election. During the campaign, candidate Obama vowed to give an address in a Muslim capital within his 100 days in office. In early April, the President delivered a speech (not the speech) in Ankara that echoed some of the themes of his Al-Arabiya interview. He insisted that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam" and stressed America's "desire for broader engagement" based on the mantra of "mutual interest and mutual respect."
On June 4, President Obama visited Cairo and gave the much-anticipated speech defining his views on America and the Muslim world. Entitled "On a New Beginning," the 55-minute address is only the latest contribution to President Obama's ongoing dialogue with the Muslim world; more speeches (perhaps the next one in Indonesia) are sure to come. Speaking eloquently and at times quoting from the Qur'an, President Obama sought to bridge the divide between the United States and the Muslim world. Rather than shying away from differences, the President spoke openly about the need to confront seven [End Page 494] key sources of tension, highlighting among other issues, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.1 This passage of the speech —in which President Obama spoke compassionately about the suffering on both sides of the conflict and likened the Palestinian struggle to that of African Americans in the United States —provoked the greatest reaction (both positive and negative). While many in the Muslim world applauded the speech, most also underscored the need for the President to back his powerful words with action.
In the midst of this flurry of diplomacy, two new books offer both an historical perspective and forward-looking insights into how the United States should pursue engagement with the Muslim world. Taken together, they provide an important retrospective of the Bush Administration policies that damaged America's image in the Muslim world as well as concrete recommendations on how to promote engagement between the United States and the Muslim world. In Engaging the Muslim World, Juan Cole, the University of Michigan historian and author of Informed Comment, the well-known Middle East-related blog, traces the roots of the mirror-image afflictions that he terms "Islam Anxiety" in the West and "America Anxiety" in the Muslim world. Cole challenges many of the pervasive myths that have come to define Americans' misinformed understanding of Islam. Written in a blog-like, informal...