Obama walks the talk in new Muslim outreach
Post-Cairo speech » U.S. purging inflammatory language and sending Nobel winners to teach seminars.
By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
Nearly a year after President Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo announcing that America wanted a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, evidence of that policy shift has, in recent weeks, become hard to ignore.
The Obama administration is revising national security guidelines that strip references to “Islamic radicalism” and other terms deemed inflammatory to Muslims.
Officials also reversed 3-month-old guidelines that singled out passengers on flights arriving from 13 Muslim countries, and Cuba, for mandatory screening.
Controversial scholar Tariq Ramadan entered the United States for the first time in six years after being barred by the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has dispatched American Nobel Prize winners to advise Muslims scientists, economists and other professionals on how to improve their research and better manage their institutions. At month’s end, the U.S. government will play host to some 500 mainly Muslim business people for intensive seminars on entrepreneurship.
“There’s a lot going on but not a lot being told,” said Qamar ul-Huda, a senior officer at the Religion and Peacemaking Program at the United States Institute for Peace, an independent nonpartisan institute chartered by Congress. “Many Muslims are not aware of what’s happening, and that needs to be addressed.”
Many analysts say tangible benefits to U.S. foreign policy and security already are visible, such as increased U.S.-Pakistani cooperation that has resulted in the capture or killing of an unprecedented number of high-level Taliban leaders.
In June, Obama will have another chance to win over Muslims when he visits Indonesia, the Southeast Asian nation where he spent part of his childhood and which boasts the world’s largest Muslim population.
Still, analysts say the long-term battle for Muslim hearts and minds is just beginning, and they caution it will take time to win over people in societies plagued by unemployment, corruption, and social malaise — much less those who are more familiar with U.S. troops in Afghanistan than business seminars in Washington.
Obama and other administration officials stopped using terms like “Islamic extremism” shortly after taking office and are purging “Islamic radicalism” from the National Security Strategy policy document.
“It’s offensive to everyday Muslims who don’t like their religion tied to extremism,” ul-Huda said. While not yet finalized, the new language will target terrorism groups rather than use general terms that connect terrorism to Islam.
While George W. Bush was criticized heavily in the Muslim world for using terms such as “Islamo-fascism,” changes started being made while he still was in office. In 2008, the National Counterterrorism Center produced a document called “Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counter-Terrorism Communication,” which recommends that government agencies and officials avoid characterizing al-Qaida and other terrorist groups as “Islamic” or “Muslim” because those terms could “unintentionally legitimize” their tactics.
In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted a 2004 revocation of Ramadan’s visa, which undermined U.S. credibility as a beacon of democracy, critics said. “It made it harder to sell democracy in the Muslim world,” said Asma Afsaruddin, and Islamic Studies professor at Indiana University who taught at Notre Dame when Ramadan was barred.
Many Muslims have welcomed the changes and shift in tone. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the new White House vocabulary “another step toward respectful and effective outreach to Muslims at home and abroad.”
“We hope this positive change in language,” he said, “will lead to policies that will deal more effectively with important issues such as peace with justice in the Middle East and withdrawal of our nation’s forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
For Muslims in the Islamic world, the changes have been greeted with hope, but also skepticism, especially as Obama has increased the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remain stalled.
“Many Muslims see this as an important harbinger of things to come. The fact that Obama stops using terms like Islamic terrorist shows a big change in mind-set.
Muslims notice that, they notice that he’s not generalizing about them,” Afsaruddin said. But, she added, “Skeptics would say people are still dying in Afghanistan, and that the Palestinians are not any better off. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s too early to give up hope.”
Ramadan, a Swiss scholar who has been critical of U.S. foreign policy, has used his new freedom to tell New York Magazine in an interview that he believes Obama has shown he knows how to communicate with Muslims, but not much else.
“Obama has the vision and the words, but does he have the power? This is problematic,” Ramadan said. “It seems he is limited.”
Ul-Huda blames the media and politicians in the Muslim world for kindling anti-American sentiments. Whenever people point to progress, ul-Huda said, naysayers always bring up Afghanistan and Palestine.
“Of course there are people who say, ‘What have you done?’ They want magic, but Obama never promised magic.”
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