Foreign Policy

It’s Gaza First at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum

It was hard to mistake the mood at the seventh annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. A little more than a year after Barack Obama came to office, there is tension brewing in U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim communities around the world. To be sure, hope is not lost, and many are still positive about President Obama himself. But the high expectations that followed the president's election, especially after his important speech in Cairo last June, have been replaced by widespread disappointment. What happened during the past year? It boils down to mostly one issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which clearly remains the prism of pain through which many Arabs and Muslims see American foreign policy. Above all else, it was hard to miss the anger over the continued blockade of Gaza.

The 2010 forum was marked by high-level participation, seriousness, and unusual frankness. President Obama addressed the conference by video and announced the appointment of Rashad Hussain as his envoy to the Organization of Islamic States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a substantial speech that tackled all the hard issues -- the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, human rights -- as well as others. Senator John Kerry also spoke, highlighting issues of mutual concern. Others included Ambassadors Richard Holbrooke, Pradeep Ramamurthy of the White House, and Farah Pandith, the State Department's representative to Muslim communities. The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, one of the most popular leaders among Arabs and Muslims these days, as well as the prime minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al-Thani, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the special representative of the president of Algeria, articulated the concerns of many Arabs and Muslims.

The atmosphere in the sessions was considerably less contentious than during the Bush years. But in contrast to last year's forum, which followed Obama's election and was marked by noticeable optimism, this year's mood among Muslim participants was marked by disappointment. The regional media covering the conference hammered on the theme of the gap between words and deeds, noting the high expectations that followed the president's Cairo speech. But when probed, much of the frustration boiled down to the slow progress in advancing Arab-Israeli peace. To be sure, there were also questions raised about the American commitment to human rights and democracy, but most of the grievances in the end were connected to the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the failure to freeze all Israeli settlement activity, or the failure to make noticeable progress toward the two-state solution.

While American officials acknowledged the frustrations and shared the disappointment at the slow progress in peacemaking, they highlighted other accomplishments on issues that are important to the lives of people in the region such as cooperation in fighting disease and advancing scientific research. But the general tendency of many Arab and Muslim participants, as well as the Arab media, was to see in such arguments a diversion from the issues they care deeply about.

Whether intended or not, the regional perception was that high-level American participation was in large part intended to focus on the Iran issue and to rally support for sanctions on Tehran. While many Arab governments in the Gulf region indeed see Iran as a major threat, the vast majority of the Arab and Muslim publics do not share this view -- even those who dislike Iran's Islamist regime. For a majority of Arabs, the collapse of the prospects of a peace deal that ends the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and gives rise to an independent Palestinian state is a bigger threat than a nuclear Iran.

It was hard to leave the forum without better understanding the deep grievances and the core issues of the other side. No American official could leave the meetings without coming to grips with Arab and Muslim frustrations on Gaza and settlements; and Arab and Muslim participants heard the American demand that Arabs do more on the peace front, the focus on Iran, and the importance of continuing war on al Qaeda.

But official participation which gets most of the headlines is only part of what takes place in these forums. Working groups that address issues from philanthropy to democracy, to interfaith dialogue and economic development create enduring networks and sometimes provide new ideas. And this year, the dialogue was particularly constructive, with more than 200 accomplished participants including scholars, journalists, religious leaders, business people, scientists, and artists, among others.

But the mood could not be misunderstood. The hope that emerged with the end of the Bush era has been replaced by anxiety which could soon turn into gloom. If the forum clarified the issues and the depth of feelings and helped pinpoint the kinds of steps that have to be taken to arrest a quickly shifting paradigm about America's relations with Arab and Muslim populations, then it was worth the effort.