The seizing of American hostages in Iran in 1979. The suicide attack on a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. The suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
The relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world — about 1.5 billion people on six continents — is fraught, on both sides, with conflict, mistrust, stereotypes, opposing loyalties and seemingly irreconcilable value differences. Yet, attributing the aforementioned acts of aggression to Muslims when the perpetrators are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan is of Christianity, is to betray a decidedly Western interpretation.
In the Arab Muslim world, the U.S. is seen as a duplicitous power broker, siding with dictators when it suits our interests, such as the Shah of Iran, and then Saddam Hussein when the shah was deposed. The seemingly arbitrary national boundaries drawn after World War I by Great Britain, with U.S. support, and later, treating the region’s oil fields like a rented farm, are keenly resented. This nation’s steadfast support of Israel further angers those sympathetic to the plight of displaced Palestinians.
By virtue of his life story — he was raised for a time in Muslim-dominated Indonesia — Barack Hussein Obama is poised to improve relations with the Muslim world. As is his wont, he confronted the clash head-on in a major speech in Cairo last Thursday.
The president did more than suggest we could all get along. He said the Iraq invasion was a war of choice yet defended the invasion of Afghanistan as a necessary and just response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Obama affirmed U.S. support for Israel, yet he asserted that the living conditions for Palestinians are intolerable.
The president also effectively described what America is, or aspires to be: “We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words — within our borders, and around the world.”
And in language that alluded to Osama bin Laden, the president laid out the terms by which a new relationship could be built. “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” he said.
Speeches are easy, but they are an essential first step toward a new relationship. The way forward will be difficult, and the Arab world will scrutinize each U.S. move with skepticism. At times, U.S. policy will be at odds with Muslim views. But the president was effective in reaching out to hearts and minds in the Islamic world.