Engaging with the Muslim World Will Require More than a Special Representative

A key facet of the Obama administration’s broader foreign policy strategy has been engaging with the Muslim world. This administration’s willingness to do so was welcomed as a beacon of hope across the globe and Obama’s speeches in the Middle East this spring brought long awaited overtures between America and Muslim communities.

But America’s negative image in the Muslim world is a consequence of United States policies over the years rather than the failure to implement better communications strategies. And while appointing Farah Pandith as Special Representative to Muslim Communities may represent a new era in engaging with the Muslim world, Pandith cannot win the hearts and minds without a commensurate change in U.S. policy in the Middle East and South East Asia.

While President Obama’s goal is to improve U.S.-Muslim relations, America is faced with the paradigm of a nation that is intent on engaging with 1.5 billion people solely on religious and cultural levels. Viewing the problems with the Middle East with a religious lens lumps together identities, cultures, histories and experiences. Such a viewpoint blunts the prospect of success for better understanding relations between the United States and the heterogeneous peoples of the so-called Muslim world.

Eventually, the battle for the hearts and minds is shaped by the dichotomy between what the United States can deliver to Muslim communities and the extremists who prey on America’s stalemates and failures. Two wars later, terrorism is still thriving, and the dialogue between America and the Muslim world has come to a muted mistrust. U.S. policy of dialogue and engagement is designed to bridge that gap.

Public diplomacy experts, such as former Under Secretary James K. Glassman, have advocated a need to change U.S. approach towards Muslims. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also recently criticized the U.S. military’s outreach to Muslims during the 91st Annual National Convention of the American Legion, pointing out that outreach efforts were mishandled, while too little importance was given to building trust and credibility among Muslim communities.

The creation of a post at the State Department, the “Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” was developed to meet the gaps later identified by Glassman and Mullen. However, neither official made a reference to this post, but rather suggested a shift in current approaches and policies to craft a new communication strategy.

Farah Pandith was appointed in June 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Pandith held a similar post under the Bush administration, and while her five years of experience have been hailed as a testament to her capacity, the state of U.S.-Muslim relations today speaks volumes, contradicting the very idea that this post is either beneficial or could possibly bring forth tangible results under the purview of State Department.

Pandith’s work on the “War of Ideas” under the Bush administration seems to clash with the Obama administration’s vision of conducting public diplomacy and cultural engagement. The very term “War of Ideas” has now become an anathema to this current administration. Could her appointment reflect internal disagreements at State Department between pro-Obama and pro-Clinton factions? Or could this also be a further example that the United States fails to understand the very population its foreign policy is targeting, a problem that has plagued the previous administration?

Regardless, the reality is that Muslims expect a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy, which is perceived as tilted toward Israeli priorities. While the president has emphasized “common interests,” the lack of tangible results and the recent deadlocks on the international scene, notably the Goldstone report and failure to close the prison facilities at Guant·namo Bay, threatens to destroy the fragile achievements obtained by Obama in Cairo and afterwards.

While America says it wants to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. decision to vote against the endorsement of the Goldstone report by the UN Human Rights Council sends not only a very negative message, but also further confirming the pro-Israel bias underlying U.S. foreign policy. These, among other factors such as indiscriminate killings during U.S. military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, dubbed “collateral damages,” further fuel the arguments of and support for extremist discourse.

Engaging with Muslim communities around the world, fostering dialogue and exchange, is undertaken to curb extremism. Yet terrorism, regardless of how absurd the goals are, is politically motivated and feeds on U.S. foreign policy shortcomings such as the bias toward Israel, the control of oil, the failure of Iraq to become a stable state, the lack of properly defined goals in Afghanistan, and elusive foreign policy strategies.

However, a new way is possible. The Obama administration needs to focus on a range of political, economic, and social issues that concern these Muslim groups (may they be political parties or grassroots movements), many of which are shared by their counterparts in the American government, hence committing to a two-way process that could prove to be strategically beneficial to the United States. Eventually U.S. foreign policy would be clearer and consequently increase support for U.S. policies while countering misinformation.

Today, if we are to engage significantly with the Muslim world, U.S. policymakers must take into account emerging transnational social and political forces that drive local and national Islamist movements. U.S. policy should recognize that religious identity has come to galvanize the politics of the Muslim world. Although there is a real need to destroy the armed infrastructures of certain Islamist movements, America must act knowing that it cannot liquidate their bases or dismiss their grievances as they tend to broadly reflect the ones of the many across the Muslim world.

As for Islamist policies, most of the 1.5 billion Muslims today live under undemocratic regimes, devoid of a political or social platform to air concerns or express ideas. It is in this environment that religious symbolism and ideology have provided them with the possibility to construe their own political discourse and identity. However, one Islamist group’s ideology and formulation is built according to social, economic, historical, and political factors proper to the region or country in which it grew, and consequently can dramatically differ from another.

While experts argue that listening is pivotal to regain credibility, nowhere has any Muslim community requested a special representative to engage with them. Contrarily, they have requested to be treated on equal footing, as Christian and Jewish communities are with regards to their rights and political demands. A Special Representative to Muslim Communities can only exercise influence and achieve results in the context of cultural diplomacy.

The possible integration of a clearly elaborated message coupled with a new political strategy would be a step forward. Eventually, it should be aligned within a specifically defined cultural program that would be paralleled with other elements of broadcast and foreign policy formulations.

A greater recognition of political realities that exist across the Muslim world would be another step towards engaging with Muslim communities. While few in Washington would accept reforming undemocratic structures that could benefit Islamist parties and movements, this is eventually a dilemma we must tackle in a strategic yet creative manner.

Bolstering America’s credibility among Muslims does not hinge on correcting misinformation, but rather reforming a behavior that is perceived as arrogant, uncaring and insulting, and that provides extremists the tools to propagate their own narrative. If we are to believe that a Special Representative is expected to improve international dialogue at a grassroots level, we should remind ourselves that dialogue, without action, rings hollow across the very target population it seeks to engage. It may be further proof that we are still missing the point.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Anne Hagood is managing editor at Layalina Productions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Layalina.