Obama’s Muslim Strategy 2.0

While the War on Terror as we know it may be over, the struggle to counter Global Jihadism as a social movement has, in many ways, just begun.”
—Reza Aslan, How to Win A Cosmic War

“…America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition…”
—Barack Obama, “A New Beginning,”
June 4, 2009

One year ago in Cairo, Barack Obama promised “a new beginning” for America and Islam. Then some Republicans decided they didn’t want us to have health care, birthers admitted to illiteracy, the Tea Party somehow matched nativism with unchecked capitalism, the Middle East peace process froze, and the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for turning a middle-class American into a stupid car bomber. 

Had the new beginning ended before it could begin? On April 28, I attended the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy’s 11th Annual Conference, “US Relations with the Muslim World: One Year After Cairo,” to answer this very question. (Watch the CSID Conference here.) The next day, I attended Al-Mubadarah: The Arab Empowerment Initiative’s luncheon, alongside many Arab-American and Muslim American entrepreneurs, thought leaders and dignitaries. 

Here’s what it comes down to: Obama has proposed working with like-minded Muslims, through nations and networks, to build partnerships that will last into the long term. Though it’s an awkward place for an American president to stand: Engaging a religious population so it can, with our government’s assistance, realize a different kind of religious consciousness. Because it could backfire. The last time we helped develop a network of Muslims who came together for common cause, it got messy; al Qaeda emerged from the bloody aftermath.

“We Are Listening…”

Farah Pandith, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, opened the CSID Conference. She underlined the “interagency” quality of Obama’s “longterm approach,” a broad, coordinated effort that reflected “a presidential priority” to engage with Muslims around the world. That strategy is “build[ing] networks upon networks,” linking like-minded Muslims and encouraging fruitful dialogue.  It wouldn’t be about winning hearts and minds; this time around, the United States is “listening,” patiently pursuing the Cairo vision in cooperation with state and non-state partners. If we had to have a new tagline, it’d be “mutual interests and mutual respect.” 

Pandith also addressed the luncheon, explaining that America’s role was to work as an “idea incubator”—as she put it, “a Muslim in Sao Paulo is as important as a Muslim in Stockholm”—and both could gain a lot from getting to talk to one another. Like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, America is creating Islamic networks. Except America’s strategy, like the radicals’, is truly global. Nothing else could compete, and nothing less matches Obama’s ambitions.

Rashad Hussein, US envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), closed out the conference. Hussein’s remarks were grounded in Obama’s belief that “the fundamental aspirations of people all over the world are the same.” Asked about the OIC’s perceived irrelevance, Hussein “refuted” the question: “We see in the last ten years especially the OIC taking a larger role.” He was partly drawing attention to Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the organization’s strongest Secretary-General to date. (Ihsanoglu raised eyebrows when he claimed the OIC “fulfills the functions of a Caliphate”—not so far from the dreams of some modernist Muslim thinkers.)

Pandith and Hussein represent the two directions from which Obama is approaching the Muslim world.  Together, they finish what globalization started: the end of a purely or even dominantly territorial conception of the Islamic world, a challenge which Muslim thinkers are as of yet insufficiently prepared for. (See how ungracefully Iran’s Islamic Revolution has aged.) Islam is more mobile than ever before, and unfortunately violent extremists recognized this, emerging from such contexts and capitalizing on them, long before our government understood the nature of the shift.

The 58th State

In Obama’s post-Cairo strategy, Islam is found in either “Muslim-majority” or “Muslim-minority” regions. The whole world is isomorphic with a Muslim world differentiated by numbers; often, though not necessarily, a road to more democratic perception. Demographics aren’t the perfect determinant, but they’re better than any other determinant we have. The most important consequence? Because America has Muslims, America is a Muslim-minority nation. That means America is as much a part of a global Muslim conversation as any other society. But that’s not the greatest change Obama has indicated.

Through the president’s strategy, America has given herself the right to participate in Islamic conversations. America, a Muslim-minority state, is as relevant to Islam as a Muslim-majority state. In fact, America is the most relevant: We are the hinge at which Muslim-minority and -majority meet. It’s a fascinating, controversial, and confusing mix of short-term power politics predicated on presumed long-term trends, wedding through American resources the potential capacities of Muslim-majority states and the mobile potency of transnational Muslim networks.

For the Muslim-majority world, Obama’s choice is to strengthen the OIC. For Muslim-minority communities, Obama’s administration has empowered network-building from multiple angles, attempting to link like-minded Muslims to create attachments that can defeat and dismantle radical networks. Make Muslims fight Muslims: It sounds either admirably sophisticated or worryingly imperialist. How Muslims, as participants and spectators, perceive the strategy is undeniably crucial to its success.

Oh, I See…

Conceding that current intergovernmental structures reflect a disappearing world order, Obama has pushed new(er) fora to give rising powers a stake in the global system—say, the G20. (Once you buy in, it’s a lot harder to cash out.) But the OIC? Quite often mocked, the OIC’s only competition in presumed irrelevance was long the Arab League, as jaded Arabs and Muslims struggled to determine whose global body was more completely pointless. 

By appointing an accomplished young lawyer as America’s envoy to the OIC, Obama is raising the organization’s profile. (Somebody listened.) Identifying the OIC as an expression of a collective Muslim will means attempting to forge, out of a messy mix of states, an international partner for America. Someone who can answer the phone when we call. But the OIC’s 57 member-states are by no means united by their modes of government or foreign policies. They are simply mostly majority-Muslim. Obama’s strategy will, if it works—and the recent trajectory of Ihsanoglu’s OIC has been towards greater clout—speed up a shift long desired. The South Asian philosopher Allama Iqbal dreamed, in the 1930s, of a “league of Muslim nations” to sit on the Caliph’s empty throne.  

The Obama doctrine turns to transnational networks to complement engagement with Muslim nations. Here, America is both facilitator and “idea incubator”: We will help create networks and grow them, but eventually walk away. Pandith hopes for these partnerships to maturely relate to America, neither awestruck and useless nor angrily in opposition. The strategy trusts in the fundamental capacities and basic intentions of Muslims the world over. It requires that Muslims fight back against radicals, not just because Americans want and need them to, but because Muslims want and need to, even after America steps away. 

Growing in size and sophistication, these networks will no doubt bump up against the policies and practices of American allied-authoritarian states and will expose Obama’s Achilles Heel: the tension between state religion and religion defined by individuals, communities and institutions. What happens when non-state networks bang their heads against the statist ceilings above them? Who, in that contest, will we choose? Will we make like Dick Cheney and shoot our friends in the face? 

We can work with the governments of the few or work responsibly and prudently towards enabling governments of the many. There is as yet not enough evidence of this; the network-building proceeds apace, but often avoids facing up to difficult political questions. If he does not insist on the importance of responsible government, checks and balances and transparency, most of all among our allies in the Muslim-majority world, Obama would only confirm many Muslims’ deepest anxieties: that he was a false hope.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *