President Barack Obama's determination to alter the terms of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world has so far mainly been displayed in his rhetoric. White House aides say that he will focus in his speech in Cairo on Thursday on commonalities between American and Muslim values, and will stress the need to fight extremism. Most Muslims, however, tell pollsters that they do not hate the American way of life or our values, but rather Washington's policies. They will want to hear what concrete steps Obama will take to address the American wars, occupations and commitments that trouble them.
In order to make a genuine and lasting impact, Obama needs to tell the Muslim world that the long years in the desert for the Palestinian people are over and that he will devote his energies to ensuring the establishment of a viable Palestinian state by the end of his first term. No one in the region believes in the so-called peace process any more, inasmuch as progress has been scant and the condition of the Palestinians has steadily worsened.
Obama needs to underline his commitment to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq on the timetable approved by the Iraqi parliament, that is, by the end of 2011. He needs to counter the statements of some of his generals casting doubt on that timetable. He should point out that he is acting in accordance with the wishes of an elected Arab parliament in Baghdad and their constituents.
Likewise, he needs to reaffirm that, despite opposition from his own party, he will close the Guantanamo Bay prison, a symbol of torture. Obama faces an uphill task. Polling shows that approval ratings for the United States plummeted in most of the Muslim world during the past eight years. A Gallup poll based on face-to-face interviews in 10 Muslim-majority countries last summer found that only 15 percent approved of the leadership that the United States had shown on the global stage.
Majorities or pluralities in most of the ten countries polled by Gallup said that their opinion of the United States would significantly improve if it withdrew its troops from Iraq and closed Guantanamo
Bay. Other practical steps that would change their minds, most said, included greater direct humanitarian aid, help with transfer of technology and business expertise, and support for the right of Muslim publics to elect their own governments.
The good news is that most of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world are not holding up signs that say, "Yankee go home!" They want an engagement with the United States, but they want that relationship to proceed on the basis of mutual respect. They want the U.S. to help them get wired and start businesses and improve their health and move toward greater democracy.
On the positive side, then, President Obama needs to lay out how his economic policies and posture on health, global warming, world trade and finance will help pull the world, including the Muslim world, out of its current economic doldrums. He needs to stress the positive role the United States has played in providing Muslims with the everyday technology, innovations and social tools to create a better life for themselves.
Obama needs to convince Muslims that America respects their sovereignty even as it reaffirms its commitment to democracy and human rights, and that the U.S. stands for further investments in improving peoples lives. He must point out that those investments can only bear fruit if radicals and war-mongers both in the region and in the West are decisively side-lined.
Juan Cole teaches history at the University of Michigan. He is author of the recent book, Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and maintains the weblog, Informed Comment.