Pamela K. Taylor
co-founder, Muslims for Progressive Values
"On Faith" panelist Pamela K. Taylor is co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values and director of the Islamic Writers Alliance. She is a member of the national board of advisors to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and served as co-chair of the Progressive Muslim Union for two years. Taylor is a strong supporter of the woman imam movement, which seeks the full participation of Muslim women in every aspect of life, including the pulpit
Start by Listening to the Real Muslim World
President Obama seems to be starting off in a good direction with regards the Muslim world. In his first week as president, he has done several things that will be well received by Muslims around the globe.
His inclusion of Muslim Americans in his inauguration prayer service and his mention of the Muslim world his inaugural speech were positive opening moves.
His almost immediate move to end American use of interrogation practices widely considered to be torture, and his taking action to start the closure of Guantanamo wins him respect not only as a man of principle, but as a man who lives up to what he promises. In a day when many many politicians seem to say anything to get elected, it is refreshing to see Obama delivering on campaign promises so promptly.
He also appears to be taking steps with regards the Middle East that will be well received. In an interview with Al-Arrabiya newspaper, Obama said that he told his newly appointed envoy to the Middle East. seasoned negotiator and former senator, George J. Mitchell, "Start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating." This is a positive first step. Improvement in relations between any two parties must begin with dialog and listening to each others' grievances.
One hopes the President and his staff have read the recently released, "Who Speaks for Islam," by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, which details the results of a mega-study of attitudes in the Muslim world by the Gallup organization. The study debunks many of the myths spouted by the Bush administration vis-a-vis the Muslim world supposedly hating American values, freedom of speech, and democracy. The vast majority of the Muslim world aspires to these same values for their own countries; it is American foreign policy, and perceived double standards that angers them.
One flash point, clearly, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the interview with Al-Arabiya, Obama addressed the issue of Palestine, saying, "I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people," and calling for a Palestinian state that is contiguous, with internal freedom of movement, and which can trade with neighboring countries. That alone represents a major departure from past American policy. If he holds to that line, he will win respect from many in the Muslim world.
It also is vital that he take early action with regards to Iraq. As a candidate, he ran on an anti-war platform; it is imperative that he take steps to effect an American withdrawal, and to facilitate the reconstruction of Iraq.
Iran, too, is a vital player in Muslim opinion of America. One oft cited grievance is the disparity between our actions towards North Korea, who has actually tested nuclear weapons, and Iran, who has not. We sent negotiators to North Korea while we threatened Iran with military action. If Obama lives up to his stated intentions to negotiate with Iran, that would be a welcome move.
The Middle East, naturally, does not represent the Muslim world. Only 20% of Muslims live in the Arab world, 30% live in the Indian subcontinent, and another 15% respectively Indonesia and North Africa.
How Obama deals with Pakistan and Afghanistan will also shape how the Muslim world views America. His appointment of Richard C. Holbrooke, who successfully brokered peace in the Balkans, as envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is a good sign. However, some of Obama's rhetoric around Pakistan and Afghanistan as the breeding grounds of terrorism is worrisome. If the US takes unilateral action in Pakistan it is likely to inflame Muslim sentiments globally.
The final key to good will in the Muslim world is how America's own Muslims fare. Will Obama disavow national security policies that allow any American citizen to be declared an enemy combatant and held indefinitely without charge, evidence, the ability to challenge his detention (ie imprisonment), or even to contact lawyers and familiy? Will we see more cases like that of Jose Padilla?
If America's Muslim population continues to live with the specter of any false accusation potentially leading to years of imprisonment without recourse, that too will have a negative impact on relations with the Muslim world.
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Posted by Pamela K. Taylor on January 28, 2009 8:05 AM