Op-Ed

Change We Can Believe In? The Muslim World, America, and Obama’s Promise

Navtej Dhillon, Laurence Chandy, and Geoffrey Gertz

Editor’s Note: On June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered an address intended for audiences across the Muslim world from Cairo University in Egypt. The president touched on many aspects of U.S. engagement with the Muslim world, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent extremism and Iran’s nuclear advances. Prior to the speech, Brookings expert Navtej Dhillon, with Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz, called on the United States to create a new foundation for engagement that includes economic development, commercial ties and cultural exchange to secure a more stable and prosperous future.

On June 4, 2009, President Obama will deliver his long-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo. This speech represents an important milestone in the president’s broader efforts to heal the rift which has come to characterize U.S.-Muslim relations and to redefine U.S. foreign policy in this critical area.

In reaching out to the Muslim world, President Obama will invariably touch upon some of the most important concerns and grievances, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need to enhance respect and understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world. The president will outline the contributions and achievements of Islamic civilization, and recognize the economic, social, and political progress underway in several Muslim countries. Reaffirming the U.S.’s dedication to law and a more principled foreign policy, the president will hail the early symbolic successes of his administration such as the commitment to close Guantanamo Bay.

However, the fundamentals of U.S.-Muslim ties remain deeply flawed. Despite the pervasive challenges of poverty and illiteracy, the two strongest ties that currently bind the U.S. and the Muslim world are military aid and oil. Instruments which can improve the lives of ordinary people such as trade, investment and development are largely missing from US-Muslim relations. This is a weak foundation on which to build a broad-ranging, mutually beneficial relationship, as President Obama hopes to do.

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