Beyond Fear and Anger

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"U.S. and the Muslim World"

By Nidal Sakr*
Years before Oslo and Madrid, as president of Muslim Student Association in some US university, I took part in a three-way meeting with a Quaker minister and a Jewish Rabbi. The meeting agenda was to discuss prospects for a two-state solution in Palestine. The moderator minister talked for about 30 minutes, then the Rabbi followed suit, each talking from his own ”religious” perspective. Before I had the chance to talk, the moderator announced “we all seem to agree, so let’s move on to solution.”

The golden rule of public policy is “Listen, Understand, and then start talking.” Lack of such a skill among politicians and diplomats highly explains ineffectiveness of foreign policy of many countries, including that of the United States.

Over the years, I have been to numerous conferences and meetings with various levels of US officials and diplomats aimed at discussing challenges facing better relations between US and Muslims.

Judging from the numerous initiatives and conferences initiated by the US on relations between US and the Muslim world, one can see that US interest today hangs on the balance, in many parts of the world, on that relationship. Considering the around-the-clock paranoia of top US officials and US intelligence apparatus, progress in fostering a peaceful relationship with Muslims seems not to have worked as well as US was hoping.

This poses a series of questions for US policy makers over the validity and feasibility of US efforts, and more precisely the following questions:

1. Do US/Muslim relations matter to US national interest? And how vital is such a relationship?

2. What defines a good US/Muslim relation? Is it one of merely neutralizing threat or one of cooperation?

3. How compatible/incompatible are Muslim and US ideals, perspectives, and objectives?

4. Is it possible to improve US/Muslim relations so as to minimize US-perceived Muslim threat to US interest to “controllable” levels?

5. Would it be feasible from US perspective to pursue such a venue? If so, how feasible?

6. Should there be a reevaluation or reconsideration of past and ongoing US initiatives to build better relations with Muslims?

7. What adjustments need to be made in the US approach to resolve or compensate for lack of desired progress in US/Muslim relations?

8. What impact does reality, on one hand, and perception, on the other, have on US/Muslim relations?

9. More precisely:

a) How does reality reconcile or contrast with perception?

b) What adjustments and actions are necessary to bridge the gap between perception and reality both in the US and among Muslims?

10. More importantly, how does US global vision and regional outlook coincide or conflict with those of Muslims?

New Thinking:

If we put US/Muslim relations in perspective, we find that US has been mostly a net taker, while the same may not be said about Muslims. Muslims’ contribution to US system, building US might, and fostering US scientific, technological, economic, and cultural growth is undeniable. I further stress that as Americans, the Muslim community is the largest net giver of all communities within the US, as testified to by numerous US findings. Muslims have historically assimilated within US society much easier than most other “cultural” and ethnic communities. Many Muslims with greatest contributions to US subscribe to a line of thought that may be figuratively characterized as “Islamist.”

Although subject to debate, I hereby define “Islamist” as one who believes in Muslim solution to contemporary problems. A Muslim may be an Islamist or not pending on his/her education and cultural awareness. Further, for the purpose of our discussion, a “non-Muslim” may be an Islamist as long as his/her outlook to solution coincides with Muslim one.

While Obama’s assertion to “Al-Arabiyya TV” that the US is one of the largest Muslim nations was outlandish, it is more fitting to say that the US is perhaps the largest “Islamist” nation. Back in 2002-2003 I was once characterized as “Jewish leader,” and sometimes as “Christian leader” by those who did not know my religious affiliation, simply for the fact that the Islamic ideals I was speaking of matched those of their religious convictions or was in defense of causes that are significant to their religious communities.

Why do we need a new way of thinking before we answer the above questions?

“If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got” is another golden rule in public policy. If we take September 11, Iraq war, Afghan war, and the deteriorating underlying sentiment that contributed to all of them, the answer becomes very clear, that is “Because we have no other choice.” US leverage in the world and region is mostly based on our capabilities in three areas: political, economic, and military - departments in all of which we are not doing too well.

So what is that new way of thinking?

Obama once said “you negotiate with enemies, not friends.” For those who still insist on thinking of Muslims as threat, the rule of engagement still applies. Fundamentally, the US has much more in common with Muslims than with any other culture. If you speak of many premises of the US constitution without revealing the source, Muslims would think that you are preaching Islamic ideals. Similarly, if you talk Muslim solutions to American audience without using religious references, you would be held in the highest light of American idealism. Even when considering US’s most complicated political dilemmas affecting US/Muslim relations, an Islamist proposition would by far be more pragmatic, applicable, and most importantly acceptable to parties involved. US officials who have been engaged in exploring my arguments know firsthand how accurate my above assessment is, although it may be different than what most would expect.

If what I am saying is true, then what explains the contrast of such findings with those of some US initiatives? The answer to this has four main parts:

1. Most initiatives are carried out by US diplomats, many of whom lack adequate insights into Muslim societies, thinking, and culture.

2. Most diplomats engaged in such initiatives come to talk and hardly to listen, let alone understand.

3. With a proud culture such as that of Muslims, the last thing you need is to come across as an “expert” in an area where your audience thinks that you do not know what you are talking about. Trust me on that - it does not look good, and it even feels much worse.

4. And primarily, Because we mostly talk to the wrong people.

In any society, there is regime, and there are people. If you want to talk to the regime you contact the country’s officials, but if you want to talk to the people it is different. Talking to civic society organizations may or may not be the way to go. When it is quite known to all which groups, affiliations, or organizations have the largest constituency and presence in the street, then directly talking to those who represent such groups becomes unavoidable. But for any exchange to be fruitful it must meet certain criterion before hand:

1. It must be unconditional from either party.

2. It must be cordial, frank, and open without presumptions, presuppositions, or prejudgments.

3. It must be “fact finding” at first, so that each party may make accurate assessment to prospects of any relations.

4. It must be entirely separate from the official apparatus of home regime, so as to allow truthful discovery.

5. It must be respectful, dignified, and professional on all parties involved.

6. State department level may not be best fit for such detrimental venue, which is no short of senior level interest.

One must not think that lack of effectiveness in diplomacy is a US-exclusive problem, as the same can be said about Israel and its regional partners - areas all of which are of direct relevance to the debate.

Further, if we evaluate effectiveness of US key initiatives in the region namely, MEPI, RAND’s “Building Moderate Muslim Network,” the various Forums and “US/Muslim World” functions, we find them to all fall short of that in-depth dialogue I am hereby proposing.

From policy maker’s perspective, such an initiative should prove almost entirely costless but feasible. Once convinced, the question is: Are we ready to pursue it in “proper fashion?”

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  * Chairman of “The March For Justice,” member of ACLU Boards of Directors 2002-2004, and Advisor to the US Commission for Civil Rights 2002-2006, and others.