Engaging the Muslim World: A Conversation with Hassan Abbas
Fletcher Forum, Vol.34:2 Summer 2010
FLETCHER FORUM: Let’s start with President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, almost a year ago. Has that speech altered U.S.–Muslim relations? Was it a step in the right direction or simply words that remain unsubstantiated?
HASSAN ABBAS: I think we should start even earlier than the Cairo speech. President Obama, during his presidential campaign, provided many indicators regarding his insights about the politics of the Muslim world, and particularly about his knowledge of the Muslim minority within the United States. His nuanced policy statements about Islam and Muslims created many expectations among Muslims early on. Newspapers and magazines published in various parts of the Muslim world sounded very pro-Obama during the presidential election season in the United States. His statements during the campaign—where he made a case for creatively engaging the Muslim world—were indeed very insightful. At one point, he very clearly said that he would address the Muslim world from a Muslim country, and so I think people were very much looking forward to his speech.
I remember the day he was elected. I was sitting in one of the media centers in Washington, DC, as an analyst for Geo TV, which had organized live coverage of the election results for Pakistani and South Asian audiences. Most Pakistanis interviewed for the channel were jubilant when it became clear that Obama was surely winning. Just glance through the editorials of many newspapers in Turkey, Indonesia, and Egypt the day after Obama’s victory and this feeling is clearly reflected.
Coming now to your question on the Cairo speech, there was debate among Muslims whether Cairo was the best place for the speech. For instance, many argued that he should have chosen a Muslim democracy such as Turkey or Indonesia. But he opted for Egypt, which says a few things. One, he did that knowing that this is an Arab country ruled by a dictator. However, he chose Al-Azhar University, one of the most important centers of Islamic learning, as the forum for his address, which in turn won the hearts of many. Irrespective of these issues, in terms of relations between the United States and the Muslim world, his message was addressed to a global audience of Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
He emphasized the need for a relationship based on respect. I think President Obama had it exactly right. This is the real issue vis-à-vis the “Islam and the West” debate. The political issues are all critical—the conflict zones and America’s role in those conflicts are also critical—but the nature of suspicion in the Muslim world about the West in general and the United States in particular needed to be tackled. President Obama very intelligently, and I believe very sincerely, reframed the issue when he said that he was in Cairo to seek a new beginning “based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” I think the significance of this assertion is still not recognized to the extent that it should have been, both in the Muslim majority states and in the United States.
FORUM: To follow up on that, do you think the Obama administration has succeeded in matching the promise of “mutual interest and mutual respect” with concrete steps toward engagement?
ABBAS: In his speech, President Obama mentioned the potency of positive engagement in the Muslim world as a way of sidelining extremists. This parallels a view within the Muslim world, which argues that you must not only fight the extremists or the militants, but also work to empower the progressive and liberal forces in the Muslim world.
I believe that more interaction and “a relationship of respect and mutual interest” will naturally lead to empowering progressive Muslim intellectuals. I must add that the West has always been interacting with an elitist and largely non-representative group of the Muslim world, whether it is in Egypt, Pakistan, or Jordan. It is tragic that this Westernized elite of theMuslim world, in most cases, is disconnected from their own people. Often this elite is involved in oppression and autocracy. So most people in the Muslim countries, who have negative feelings about their own governing elite, by default develop a very anti-U.S. or anti-Western view because they see the West or America through the lens of their own leaders, who are perceived as great friends of the United States. This issue is particularly relevant to the politics of the Arab states today.
I think the Obama administration understands that it must bridge the gap between America and the non-elite Muslims of the world. Another aspect of President Obama’s policy which I think is working toward building this relationship is the decision not to use the words “war on terror,” because this phrase is not only very unpopular in the Muslim world, it is also contradictory in many ways. Many Muslims interpreted it as a “war on Islam” and viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the atrocities of Abu Gharib, in this light.
For complete interview (pdf), click here