Column: U.S. – Islamic relations not predetermined

The following is an excerpt from Ambassador Inderfurth’s opening comments given at a Town Hall meeting on U.S.-Islamic relations in the Elliott School of International Affairs last Friday.

As a former practitioner in international affairs and now as a professor here at the Elliott School, I would like to begin with several policy prescriptions for how the United States should be engaging the Islamic world.

With respect to U.S. policy, it is important to keep in mind that there are more than one billion Muslims in the world. Over 50 nations make up the Organization of the Islamic conference, the OIC. Important U.S. allies such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Egypt are among the countries with the largest Muslim populations. This simply underscores a very important point – if we have a “clash of civilizations” with the Muslim world, we do so at our peril. Having said that, let me make the point that many here already know, namely, that polling – including a comprehensive survey released by the Pew Research center this summer – demonstrates that the war in Iraq has severely damaged the already-poor American image in the Islamic world, and more Muslims are thinking in terms of the extremists, the so-called Jihadists.

Despite our claims to be liberators, many see the U.S. as the enemy of Islam – out to destroy their faith and subjugate its people.

This growing anti-Americanism must be addressed, and we must do this by our actions. Words will not be enough.

So what should these actions be? Let me list four specific policy steps that I believe are essential for us to have a positive engagement with the Islamic world.

First, we must internationalize the continuing conflict and reconstruction of Iraq, and that means bringing the United Nations in as a partner, not a subservient., for the work that must be done there. This is an international problem and must be treated as such. A continuing “we’re in charge” American role in Iraq will result in more, not less, terrorism, a costly and lengthy commitment in a hostile environment, and a further erosion of our international standing.

Second, we must secure the peace in Afghanistan. The United States has an unprecedented opportunity to assist Afghanistan, a Muslim state, in rebuilding its society after more than two decades of war and in accordance with, as stated in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, “the principals of Islam, democracy, pluralism and social justice”. Unfortunately, almost two years after the victory over the Taliban, success is far from assured, and the Taliban is beginning to reemerge again as a serious security threat to the government of Hamid Karzai and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Third, the U.S. must redouble its effort to move Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. An essential part of America’s engagement with the Muslim world lies in the Middle East. But every day it seems the tragedy there only deepens. On September 11, Tom Friedman had a column in The New York Times titled “Breaking Death’s Grip.” He had a message to both sides. To Hamas he said, “You may think these suicide bombers will drive Israelis to leave. But they’re just digging in.” To Prime Minister Sharon he said, “If you think Oslo was a failure, look at the alternative. In three years some 850 Israelis have been killed under your strategy. Yours and Hamas’ are two failed strategies that add up to a human meat grinder.” And, at the end of the column, he had to say to the U.S. and Bush administration, “America must stop it. A credible peace deal here is no longer a luxury; it is essential to our own homeland security. Otherwise, the suicide madness will spread, and it will be Americans who will have to learn how to live with it.”

Fourth and finally, we must undertake a major effort to build bridges to the Muslim world abroad and to repair bridges to our Muslim community here at home.

The image of the United States abroad has plummeted, and the problem is worsening in the Muslim world. We need to make a long-term commitment – not only by the government but by the private sector, (non-governmental organizations) and academic institutions – to have a cross-cultural dialogue with Islamic clerics, leaders in society, journalists, university students and others.

And while we are building those bridges abroad, we must repair bridges at home. The second anniversary of 9/11 powerfully reminds us that we are living in dangerous times, and we must ensure the safety and security of the American people. But, in doing so, we cannot single out any particular community for racial or religious reasons. Actions by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and some law enforcement agencies have created a real sense of intimidation and humiliation within our Muslim community. The headline in The New York Times on the second anniversary of 9/11 that President Bush is urging “Wider U.S. Powers in Terrorism Law” – the so-called “Patriot Act” – will no doubt increase the level of anxiety in the Muslim community. Even in these extraordinary times – indeed, especially in these extraordinary times – steps must be taken to ensure that the rights of all Americans are respected and that all Americans are treated in a dignified manner.

– The writer is Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs (1997-2001).

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