In surveys, when Muslims across the world are asked what the West should do to improve civilisational relations, they say that their culture be shown respect and there be no interference in the affairs of Islamic states. President Barack Obama began addressing the first half of this dual demand with his Cairo speech seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” While he has attracted criticism, it was always clear that Obama’s main audience was the Arab Muslim, that he was going to focus on tone — not tangibles — and, finally, he would not dump core US policies unpopular with the Islamic world.
At the heart of Obama’s strategy is a recognition of a difference, to use political science jargon, between “distrust” and “bias”. Muslims who distrust the US do so for its specific policies. Muslims who are biased are hostile to the fundamental nature of the US. The Arab street retains a strong positive view of the US as a symbol of freedom, as an immigrant destination and a potential ally. Islamic extremists, however, are opposed to what the US stands for. They will remain hostile irrespective of what the US does. Following 9/11 and the excesses that followed, these two streams of anti-Americanism came dangerously close to merging. Obama’s rhetoric seeks to restore this distinction and regain the trust of the average Arab Muslim. His speech struck the right rhetorical notes: scriptural quotations, the humble superpower and even a bit of Israel bashing. The real test will be about converting sentiment into substance. The prospects are better than is realised. First, the US is visibly winding down its Iraqi presence. Second, negative symbols like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are fading away. Third, the siren call of al-Qaeda is muted among Arabs today. Afghanistan-Pakistan are on the boil, but they excite Arab Muslims far less than Iraq. Finally, if Obama is lucky, he will see ballot-driven regime change in Iran and a maturing of Hamas, Either of these will open political opportunities lacking for a decade.
No one should expect Obama to jettison key US positions regarding Iran or Israel. He is the president of the US, not the Arab League. But the character of the new President and the present international situation indicate a historical chance to bridge what is the world’s most dangerous civilisational divide.