Bridging the Divide: US Efforts to Engage the Muslim World

August 05, 2009

This article first appeared in the Middle East Journal, Volume 63, Number 3, Summer 2009. The complete article can be viewed here.

In lieu of the complete article, the article summary is below.

In the first six months of his presidency, Barack Obama has clearly signaled his administration's desire to turn a new page in America's relations with the Muslim world. The new President has promoted several dramatic measures designed to restore the United States' tarnished image in the Middle East and beyond. In his inaugural address, Obama issued a call to the Muslim world for "a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo as well as the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) network of secret prisons. He banned the use of torture. He named well-respected diplomat George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East, once again elevating the Middle East peace process as a key foreign policy priority. The new President opted to give his first press interview to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic language satellite television station. The interview was noteworthy in several respects, not least in the President mentioning his Muslim family members and the portion of his childhood spent living in the Muslim world. He underscored the need to listen rather than dictate, and acknowledged the importance of backing words with action. And that was just his first week in office.

President Obama's promise to improve US relations with the Muslim world predates his election. During the campaign, candidate Obama vowed to give an address in a Muslim capital within his 100 days in office. In early April, the President delivered a speech (not the speech) in Ankara that echoed some of the themes of his Al-Arabiya interview. He insisted that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam" and stressed America's "desire for broader engagement" based on the mantra of "mutual interest and mutual respect."