The Opportunity of the Obama Era: Can Civil Society Help Bridge Divides between the United States and a Diverse Muslim World?

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

October 29, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Executive Summary

Does the Obama presidency present an opportunity for civil society to restore the damaged relationships between the United States and diverse Muslim-majority states and communities around the world? Like never before, the 21st century has seen varied and distinct peoples, nations, religions, and ideologies thrust together through dramatic interconnections in economic trade, the media, and the internet. Governments, citizens, and civil society groups from regions that previously had little interaction are suddenly finding themselves connected, whether they like it or not. While some groups have found common ground, clashes and divisions have emerged among others. Most notably, the divides between the United States and a diverse Muslim world, longstanding in some ways, have dramatically deepened since September 11th, 2001 and remained significant through the end of the Bush Administration.

In the wake of 9/11, civil society, particularly in the United States, but also in the Muslim world, substantially expanded initiatives to bridge their divide. Tens of millions, if not a few hundred million dollars, were spent by U.S. civil society from 9/11 through the end of the Bush era. And tens of thousands of Americans have made contact in video conferences, exchanges, and other endeavors, many of them senior policy analysts. But what has been the impact of all this effort, and all these millions spent? Polling data shows that relations have gotten worse and not better. This is clearly not the fault of these initiatives, but has there at least has been improved understanding among the civil society participants themselves?

This paper assesses the effectiveness of the abovementioned initiatives through a systematized, survey-based examination of a cross-cutting sample of two dozen such initiatives. The effort to systematically survey and evaluate these projects in this way is the innovative contribution of this paper. Based on this analysis, the paper provides a set of best practices and recommendations for implementers and funders so that in the future, projects can be constructed more effectively. Because the foundational notion of these initiatives is to redress the gap in how civil society in the United States and the Muslim world view one other, the paper examines, through detailed polling, how Americans and citizens of the Muslim world perceive the nuanced nature of their relationship.

Building support within civil society across the U.S.-Muslim world divide is valuable to both communities in that it can strengthen international security through mutual understanding, and open communication channels that can be used to solve shared challenges. First, building relationships among non-state actors can be valuable in defusing crises, or in providing insight and information during situations that are often rife with suspicion and misunderstanding. In this regard, it is important to examine and understand polls which indicate that when both sides look at the relationship and acknowledge its current state, Americans and Muslims abroad blame each other for the bad state of relations. Second, improved relations between civil society groups in the United States and Muslim world can influence the overall environment in which discussions around the favorability of the United States and its policies, or even the legitimacy of violence used against the United States and its allies takes place.

By the end of the Bush Administration there was no shortage of polls that illustrate the severity of the divide; 83 percent across the Muslim world express unfavorable views of the United States, and only nine percent of Americans feel that the United States and the West have good relations with the Muslim world. What remains to be seen is whether the rhetorical efforts of President Obama towards the Muslim world in the early days of his administration will have any substantive impact. Overwhelmingly, the grievances felt in the Muslim world are towards U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the war in Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the lack of attention on the Israeli-Palestinian front. With a new administration in Washington determined to reverse course on all these issues, and a U.S. president who touts his Muslim heritage, there is certainly an opportunity to reboot the relationship and enable the civil society initiatives described in this paper to actually find the common ground they have long sought.

Initiatives examined by this study were selected because they represent a cross section of initiatives to bridge the divide between the United States and the Muslim world that were launched, or significantly expanded after 9/11. Given the diversity of the projects selected, it is hoped that the findings will be broadly applicable.

Four vital, strategic findings emerge from the analysis:

  • It is vital to define success and measure it. For the most part these initiatives seek to transform attitudes across the divide, but few if any have defined how to measure these shifts in attitudes. Initiatives must develop success indicators, and undertake pre- and post- participation evaluations of attitudes by participants of the “other”. In this situation, “success,” is considered to be achieving the desired impact of the project, and thus can be measured when specific goals are laid out. Further, funders should develop indicators to be used in cross-initiative analysis.
  • Jointness is key. Joint partnerships are the key to successful initiatives. Ideally, projects should be jointly funded, jointly managed, and jointly implemented across the divide that the initiative is attempting to bridge—and generally, in this case, with one partner in the United States and one in the Muslim world. Jointness should begin with project design, and continue throughout the life of the project so that both sides can learn from one another and improve the overall initiative.
  • Stakeholder outreach is needed. The third strategic step for initiatives is to decide who to invite to the table. Initiatives should reach beyond the “usual suspects” and avoid “preaching to the choir.” Outreach should target segments of society that normally do not talk, including conservatives and ideological opposites from each side of the divide.
  • Results can be multiplied. Initiative managers can and should have a plan to multiply the impact of their work whether through the media or other public relations mechanisms. All but the most secret, closed door sessions can be conveyed to a broader audience in some way for broader social impact.

Thus, this paper provides a broad analytical framework for examining these initiatives, strategic recommendations for how these kinds of initiatives can be better implemented in the future, and specific tactical lessons for policymakers, funders, and the practitioners of such “bridging the divide” projects, be they in the United States or the Muslim world. But clear definitions of success, with objectively verifiable success indicators measured through pre- and post-event attitudinal surveys are required to yield a more robust analysis. Even when such indicators are developed and used, they cannot measure all aspects of such nuanced programs; intuition and assessment based on experience, are vital to measure success.

This is precisely the right time to further reflect upon and analyze the role of civil society in bridging the rift between the United States and the Muslim world. Moving forward from 2009, the actions of the new U.S. administration led by President Obama have already re-booted America’s relationship with the world, including the Muslim world, and created the opportunity to significantly improve this shattered relationship. The divide has the potential to be bridged. This paper provides guidelines for how engagement, on the people-to-people front, can best be conducted to bridge the divide.