For nearly a full decade now, issues relating to terrorism, security, and conflict have dominated U.S. relations with the Muslim world. On one level this discussion has simply reflected certain geopolitical realities such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (now extending to parts of Pakistan), ongoing conflict in the Arab world, and the challenge of Iran. Related to, but also transcending, these specific foreign policy challenges has been a renewed discussion of the relationship between Islam and the West. This debate has generally been configured in adversarial terms, with frequent allusions to clashing civilizations and the incompatibility of Islam with secularism and democracy. Since many Americans and Muslims either know very little about each other or harbor considerable misperception, such discussions have tended to sharpen antagonisms and feed the general climate of fear and apprehension that exists on both sides.
A wide range of initiatives have tried to bridge this perceived chasm in recent years, ranging from leadership summits—such as the Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum itself—to various public diplomacy and inter-religious dialogue initiatives. Much of this work, however, has been found wanting, with many Muslims complaining that the United States seems only to be interested in terrorism and its own security at the expense of Muslim victims of war and oppression. Even where the U.S. recognizes the plight of Muslims, as in Palestine, it is argued, they do little to help. For their part, Americans express frustration at what they perceive as unwillingness among Muslim leaders to criticize and act proactively against terrorists. Even where intercultural dialogue and strategic communication initiatives show promise, they often end up being held hostage to ongoing military conflicts and to political and economic conditions on the ground throughout the Muslim world.
Many in the Muslim world thus welcomed the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as a significant opportunity. After running for office on a platform that emphasized diplomacy and global engagement in U.S. foreign policy, the new president, speaking in Ankara in April 2009, declared that “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to Al-Qaeda.” Two months later, in a major speech broadcast from the venerable halls of Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University, Obama announced that he was seeking
“a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
The issues Obama went on to discuss in the Cairo speech revealed that security concerns were, understandably, still prominent in the minds of U.S. policymakers. Terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and nuclear weapons topped the roster, followed by democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights. Towards the very end of his remarks, the president turned to the theme of economic development and opportunity. Recognizing that globalization produces both winners and losers and promising a range of new programs relating to entrepreneurship and science/technology, Obama went on to assert that religion and tradition need not be at odds with the search for progress and economic development. In the months following the speech, critics raised many questions about whether the Obama administration was doing enough to fulfill the enormous expectations created in Cairo.3 While it is still too early to pronounce on the progress of a vision barely a year old, its ambition is hardly in doubt.
This discussion paper on “Transformative Partnerships in U.S.-Muslim World Relations: Empowering Networks for Community Development and Social Change,” based on conversations and deliberations at the 2010 U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, picks up where President Obama’s speech ended, namely on the issue of economic and human development. It proceeds from the assumption that the creation of livelihood, opportunity, and positive social change is not only the most effective path towards progress on the other issues raised in Cairo—including security and democracy- but also holds the greatest promise of securing the shared values around which Obama’s vision of U.S.-Muslim world relations was initially framed: justice, progress, tolerance, and dignity.