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A New Beginning with the Muslim World

U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

Winning hearts and minds? A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan's Nuristan province in 2007.

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Isaac A. Graham

Six months ago, President Obama dazzled audiences from Cairo to Jakarta—and everywhere in between and beyond—with his call for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world. It came after the new president made a series of confidence-building statements, speeches, and diplomatic overtures with a consistent, sobering message: It is time for relations based on "mutual respect" and "mutual interest." Obama declared at Cairo University that there "must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

But even within his speech, he undercut his message for a new beginning when he spoke about widening the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He didn't acknowledge the growing civilian casualties—not limited to but certainly increased by drone attacks ostensibly aimed at dismantling the Taliban and Al Qaeda. These casualties have increased the risk of blowback against the United States rather than win the hearts and minds of Afghans, Pakistanis, and Muslims throughout the world.

Instead of reconsidering U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, Obama announced before a West Point audience on December 1 that he was sending 30,000 more troops starting early next year. "Our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. "This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda." To throw a bone to his base of supporters who equated him with "hope" and campaigned for his presidency on the basis of his anti-Iraq War stance, he called for the beginning of an exit in July 2011—although the when and how remains to be seen. To the people and leaders of Afghanistan, he reiterated that the United States would not be an occupying force. To Pakistan, he vaguely called for a "partnership."

The Cairo Audience

Widening the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan will only complicate, instead of complement, the Obama administration's outreach efforts to the Muslim world. Saying "we won't occupy you" is hardly a consolation prize for Afghans, for Pakistanis, for Muslims across the world, considering the inevitable death, instability, destruction, racism, and xenophobia that accompany all wars.

Obama's war strategy also doesn't address the roots of insecurity in Afghanistan. According to a UNICEF ranking, Afghanistan is the worst country in which to be born, with 257 deaths per 1,000 live births. "Widespread poverty and inadequate educational opportunities drive many households to send their children looking for work," reports the 2007-8 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment of Afghanistan. "In total 1.9 million Afghan children aged 6-17 (21 percent) are employed. According to the formal definition of child labor, of these children at least 1.2 million (13 percent) are performing child labor, thereby jeopardizing their health or development."

If the administration is serious about a new beginning, it should implement one basic, non-ideological, cost-effective policy: Stop killing Muslims. Such a policy would effectively translate the rhetoric of Cairo into reality. When I've spoken to pilgrims at Mecca and Medina, Bedouins picking cucumbers along Syria's border with Jordan, and Palestinian refugees in Beirut, they have all expressed disdain for U.S. policies that elevate war and inflame unresolved conflicts instead of promoting much-needed peace and political and socioeconomic development.

The administration's own chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, acknowledged this reality in his critique of the U.S. government's efforts at "strategic communications" with Muslims in the Joint Forces Quarterly. "We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate," he argues.

Stephen Walt has compiled a list of the number of Muslims killed by the United States during the past 30 years. He compared the number of Muslims killed in conflicts, including but not limited to the war in Afghanistan and the two wars on Iraq, to the number of Americans killed by Muslims in the 9/11 attacks, the 1983 bombings in Beirut, and other incidents. He concluded that significantly more Muslims (an estimated 288,000) than Americans (10,325) have been killed. This quantitative comparison, far more than speculations concerning freedom or liberty, answers the question President George W. Bush asked shortly after 9/11: "Why do they hate us?"  Widening the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan will only widen the disparity and deepen the animosity.

Return to Cairo

The Muslim world has already taken a clear position on the war in Afghanistan: U.S. withdrawal. Even before Obama announced the latest troop surge, a July 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey found majorities in 18 out of 25 countries calling on the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, major support for withdrawal came from majority Muslim nations: 90 percent in Palestine, 86 percent in Jordan, 72 percent in Pakistan, 70 percent in Egypt, 68 percent in Lebanon and 66 percent in Indonesia.

Who Speaks for Islam?Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think
In Review :: A six-year study sampled 90 percent of the world's Muslims in 35 countries. 

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, war and occupation do little to soften attitudes toward the United States. "More troops just means a larger target for us to hit," a Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera after Obama's West Point address. "By increasing its forces in Afghanistan, Obama is just giving more power to the Mujahideen to recruit and receive the support of the civilian population." Civilians remain caught in the middle of Taliban and U.S./NATO fire. Indeed, during his speech, President Obama made no mention of his administration's controversial drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the CIA has expanded its use of drones in Pakistan's tribal areas, in conjunction with Obama's troop escalation. According to a recent Gallup poll, 67 percent of Pakistanis oppose these drone attacks. A majority ranks "the United States as a greater threat to Pakistan than its archrival, India, or the Pakistani Taliban."

Commentary from the Muslim world has been pointed. Following President Obama's West Pont surge announcement, Maher Ali observed in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper: "There are those who were hoping—admittedly against the odds—that the Obama administration would be sufficiently imaginative to articulate a vision that constituted a break of some sort with the default belligerence that has characterised American foreign policy for far too long." In an interview with Al Jazeera, analyst Marwan Bishara criticized the administration's "lack of co-ordination with Pakistan, India and other regional players like Saudi Arabia [and] Iran which have long settled their geopolitical scores in Afghanistan and could instead play a positive role."

 "Too many tears have been shed.  Too much blood has been shed," Obama stated in Cairo. "All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear." Will the administration be able to reconcile this calling for conflict resolution in the Holy Land with the widened wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Doing so, as Obama stated in Oslo, would let us reach for the "world that ought to be—that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls." To stir the souls of people in the Muslim world rather than extinguish them: that should be the policy that President Obama pursues in his post-Cairo and post-Oslo presidential career.


Farrah HassenFarrah Hassen is the 2008 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow with the institute for Policy Studies. She is the co-author (with Phyllis Bennis) of the chapter, "U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East: Elevating Peace By Resolving Crises," featured in the book, Mandate for Change: Policies and Leadership for 2009 and Beyond. This article is re-posted with the kind permission of Foreign Policy in Focus.

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