America’s Relations with the Muslim World since 2001

Spearhead Analysis – 18.03.2014

By Shemrez Nauman Afzal
Research Advisor and Consultant (Security and Governance)
Spearhead Research – Pakistan

From devastation and destruction to diplomacy and dialogue : a short history of the West’s intervention in Muslim states since 2001, and whether the “New Beginning” that U.S. President Obama sought in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world has started, or fizzled out before inception

CoexistAfter decades of tensions between Islam and the West, especially between post-colonial Muslim states and the U.S. since the end of World War II, there was a verbal assurance of a “strategic reset” by American in its relations with the Muslim world. This article discusses the main component and primary signal of that reset: a speech by the incumbent U.S. President in 2009 – almost a decade after the “War on Terror” began and the world’s superpower began overt and covert military operations as well as intelligence gathering through surveillance in order to reassert its dominance and undermine those that it considered “rogue states” – and whether that “reset” has actually resulted in improved relations between the Muslim world and the U.S., and between the former and the West in general. How far has the recalibration – and improvement – of relations between Islam and the West come along: has it even “gotten off the ground” or not? Do post-9/11 relations between Islam and the West remain locked in a continuing state of suspicion? Are relations between the developed Western countries and developing/underdeveloped Muslim polities still characterized by unilateral (and sometimes mutual) distrust, the absence of a single or multiple partnerships (in a bilateral or multilateral dimension) where the U.S. treats other Muslim states as equals, and latent hostility/animosity which is sometimes exhibited in diplomatic forms – and other times erupts into overt anti-U.S. protests on the Arab/Muslim street?

In a speech at the Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt on June 04, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama sought a “new beginning” of relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland noted that in an ancient city, America’s (then still-new) president aimed to heal a rift that has endured for decades, if not centuries. Barack Obama stood before a crowd of 3,000 in the great hall of Cairo University to deliver a speech that demonstrated not only his trademark eloquence but also the “sheer ambition of his purpose – nothing less than bridging the divide between Islam and the west”. Freedland stated that the speech was mindful of how much it can and cannot achieve (President Obama, the herald of “change”, acknowledged in this instance that “change cannot happen overnight”), but more importantly, the speech proved that “a major address can have a major impact”. The U.S. President did not unveil a new policy programme or Middle East peace plan during that address: instead, the tone and the vocabulary were used to register the greatest impact. The thread that ran through every paragraph was a simple but (according to Freedman) “radical” idea: respect for the Arab and Muslim world. All of this was a world away from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was unable to address Muslims in a tone that was not bellicose or patronizing. “If Bush had said the same words”, Freedman says, “they would have sounded phoney”. Obama’s speech went deeper than flattery about the great Islamic past – he attempted to show understanding, if not acceptance, of “what one might call the Arab and Muslim narrative”. Obama began his “strategic reset” – as his administration undertook with U.S.-Russia relations in 2009 – with the Muslim world by presenting a thorough, lucid, and concise context:

“[The] great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world … [is] … rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam. Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims … So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end … faith must bring us together.”

Labelled “A New Beginning”, the U.S. President’s speech to the Muslim world was warmly received by its intended audience: the vast majority of moderate Muslims – citizens of a globalized community – living in the Middle East and around the world. As the U.S. President demonstrated his respect for Islam, quoted verses from the Quran, highlighted achievements of Muslim civilization(s) and their contributions to different fields, subjects and disciplines, Obama also spelled out the “red lines” of U.S. foreign policy for the “Greater Middle East”: the vast swathe of land from the North African Sahara (the Islamic Maghreb) to the South Asian region (and also the Asia Pacific region) where Muslims reside and where Muslim-majority nation-states are situated. President Obama said that America’s bonds with Israel are “well known” and “unbreakable”, and are “based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied”. As he acknowledged America’s mistakes in Iraq – while also saying that he believed Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein – and its role in the overthrow of the democratically-elected Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, he also affirmed that the Muslims and Christians of the land of Palestine have “suffered in pursuit of a homeland … [and] endured the pain of dislocation” for over 60 years: to that end, he said that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own”. However, he also said that, “Palestinians must abandon violence [because] resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed”. The same logic, however, could not be applied to the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in terms of their treatment of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, in Gaza (which neighbours Egypt, where the speech was given), and thousands of “Arab Israelis” living within the boundaries of today’s Israel. Nevertheless, the U.S. President promised that America will play its role in reconciling Israel with the Arab/Muslim world:

“America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.” This was a veiled attempt at saying that America will not allow Israel to “go away” or – as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad vowed – be “wiped off the map”. And the phrasing of this particular paragraph was a signal to Muslim countries that if they privately recognize the need to acknowledge Israel’s existence, they must do so publicly as well: as America will “say in public what we say in private”. However, even if it is the opinion of the general public or the policy of those in power, the acceptance of Israel as a sovereign nation with a right to exist is an extremely difficult (if not impossible) proposition for Muslim countries and peoples. Anwar Sadat’s peace accord with Israel cost him his life. And whether Muslim states (monarchies or democracies) deal with Israel in private, they can never do so in public without inviting the wrath of their people. To somewhat sweeten this “red line”, President Obama said, “recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

He stated that “Islam is a part of America”, that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam”, and that the sources of tension(s) between America and the Muslim world should not be ignored, but be faced squarely and head-on. The most important of these tensions was the threat posed by radical extremists: “America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”

In the “A New Beginning” speech, President Obama said that he ordered Guantanamo Bay to be closed by 2010: that has yet to happen, especially because of internal political tensions in the United States over the issue of irreconcilable radicals. This was the first of six points that he elaborated on in his speech. The second was the source of tensions between Islam and the West over the issue of Israel and Palestine. The third was “our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons”, which was acknowledged to be the cornerstone of modern-day tensions with Iran. The fourth was democracy, in which the U.S. President said that “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other … [but] that does not lessen my commitment … to governments that reflect the will of the people”. This was met with thunderous applause from the 3,000 strong Egyptian audience in attendance, many of whom were out on the streets in late 2010/early 2011, and caused the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the strongman who ruled Egypt after Sadat’s assassination under emergency law proclamations for more than thirty years. The fifth issue was religious freedom, in that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance”, and “freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together” so it must be protected and promoted. The sixth and final issue was economic development and opportunity, where the U.S. President stated that America was ready to cooperate and collaborate with Muslim countries on education, on economic development, on science and technology, and on other facets of globalization so that a strong partnership between America and Muslim governments and citizens allows “community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life”. The speech ended (with verses from the Quran, the Holy Bible and the Talmud, and) the affirmation that “The people of the world can live together in peace: we know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.”

Though it was a definite signal that America would not pursue change in the world – especially in the Muslim world – through the force of its arms, but through the use of diplomacy and international consensus, it was also a clear acknowledgment that America ruined more than it fixed when it undertook the Global War on Terror in 2001. At that moment in history, when President Obama was seeking “a new beginning” with Muslim countries and a “strategic reset” in the way the general public of Muslim-majority states views America and the West, the U.S. President would have been far more successful in demonstrating his active foreign policy goals – as well as his respect for Islam, its tenets of faith, and its ideals for life – by renaming the GWOT into the “War Against Extremism”. Such a recalibration would have addressed the root cause of at least half of the identified sources of tension between the U.S. and the West: it would have also demonstrated America’s (or at least it’s President’s) understanding that terrorism is not solely an Islamic or Muslim phenomenon, that all terrorists are not Muslims, and that extremism is the root cause of terrorism and violence (and extremist thoughts and tendencies can be present in – even if they are not exhibited by – modernized, non-Islamic societies). To recognize terrorism and radical militancy as the primary source of tension between the West and the Islamic world is a good thing at the top echelon of policymaking in the U.S. – but even when President Obama said that the U.S. and the Muslim world must confront “violent extremism in all its forms”, he ignored the forms of extremism (violent, or plainly disrespectful) that can be exhibited by non-Muslims, such as Pastor Terry Jones who vowed to burn Qurans in 2010. The rapes and tortures committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq may constitute violent extremism, as well as the abject denial of women’s rights, freedoms and equality that the U.S. purports to uphold and defend (and that the U.S. claims to have promoted in Afghanistan, in the backdrop of a deeply religious country where women used to have little-to-no rights under the Taliban regime).

While President Obama stated that America was not and would never will be at war with Islam (or with Muslims), covert (and sometimes overt) armed military intervention by America – as well as involvement in (and influence over) the internal political affairs of Muslim countries (i.e. “meddling”, for lack of a diplomatic term) – continues. Drone attacks in Pakistan, and lately in Yemen and Somalia, show that the U.S. will continue to act on its own – with or without international consensus – to achieve its strategic goals in different areas of the world for different strategic timeframes: and that narrow, short-term objectives may also, sometimes, take precedence over medium- and long-term objectives.

While the U.S. undertook a military invasion of Afghanistan (in 2001, with the support of the U.N. and the international community) and of Iraq (in 2004, with lesser support), the West continued to undertake covert actions to damage Iran’s indigenous capability to enrich uranium: the Stuxnet attacks on Iranian nuclear power plants (which were finally discovered and identified by September 2010) were perpetrated by Israel in the lead, but with support from the U.S., the West, and even Saudi Arabia (Iran’s arch-nemesis within the Muslim world).

America’s mixed response(s) to the Arab Spring were even more confusing as to whether President Obama himself had undertaken a reset in relations with Muslim countries or not – and whether this had been worked out at the foreign policy level in the State Department, or in the White House, or anywhere in the U.S. In Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S. avowedly played the role of a silent spectator, and stated that it “respected the wishes and will of the people” of countries who had taken to the streets in revolt. The dictators in Tunisia and in Egypt were overthrown, but after elections, the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization that was legalized and now proscribed again, and whom Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current supreme leader, was once associated with – came to power in the legislature as well as the Presidency. In Libya, as the ground situation moved towards a stalemate, the U.S. and its NATO allies mounted an attempt to give the rebels the upper hand by enforcing a “no fly zone” over Egypt, so that Gaddafi could be overthrown quickly, and so that peace could return to a democratic Libya. Instead, Libya – which was once a cornerstone of security and counter-terrorism in North and Central Africa, through CENSAD and other effective multinational organizations that it had created under Gaddafi’s leadership – has now become a fragmented nation-state, with the government in Tripoli having little-to-no control over powerful militias (some of whom are allied with Al Qaeda) who have control over various regions and cities within the country. The West slowed down (and eventually stopped) its enforcement of the Libyan “no fly zone” – which began on March 19, 2011, and was justified by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 – and airstrikes against Libyan government forces when it became too costly (in terms of their own overwhelming and sometimes over-bloated defence budgets) for them: the U.K. Ministry of Defence (MoD) estimated on December 08, 2011 that the “net additional cost” of their operations in Libya were approximately GBP 212 million, while other calculations of the cost of U.K. operations in Libya ranged from GBP 230-260 million which were later recalculated to well over GBP 600 million, and “arguably into the £1.25-billion-plus range” for a 25 week period. From March to August 2011, the Libya military operations cost the U.S. approximately US$ 896 million – near the end of October, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had spent over US$ 1.1 billion in this particular theater. Coming back to just the U.S., while the Libya operation was ongoing, the U.S. Congressional Research Service estimated that the “Afghanistan war has cost nearly $500 billion so far… [and] with Iraq, the figure easily tops $1 trillion”. Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis called the Libyan intervention “NATO’s victory” and “the right way to run an intervention”; writing for Foreign Affairs, they said that “NATO’s operation in Libya has rightly been hailed as a model intervention”.

Though Gaddafi is gone, Libya is neither stable nor democratic. The West seemed to have learned its lesson through the aftermath of what happened (and is happening in Libya), and remembered to not interfere even a little bit in the insurgencies and civil wars – or even in uprisings that favour democracy – in Muslim countries: not that it has the guts to intervene in “civil/popular uprisings” in other Western countries, like the Ukraine for instance, where Russian boots are on the ground in the Crimea and the U.S., NATO and the West in general are contemplating on “hurting Russia” by sanctions, travel bans and assets freezes. The West turned a blind eye to the protests in Manama, Bahrain, which were quickly stifled by GCC troop movement and the stationing of Saudi and UAE troops in the Middle Eastern kingdom: to support the Sunni monarchy in the face of powerful and continuing protests by the country’s Shi’ite majority. The White House spokesman at the time, Tommy Vietor, said, “We urge our GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) partners to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it”. “Interestingly”, noted Al Jazeera, “the Pentagon said neither [then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates nor Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also recently visited Bahrain, had been given any indication that Saudi or other forces from the region would deploy to Bahrain”.

In Syria, where the situation is similar as well as different to that in Bahrain – a civil war has erupted as the country’s Sunni majority has taken up arms to force the incumbent President, Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite group, which is a subdivision of the Shi’ite sect – the West was extremely cautious and wary of any steps that it undertook or planned to undertake. Even as it drew red lines, it failed to abide by them because red lines drawn by Russia brought both the West and the Muslim world (along with Russia) to the negotiating table on what to do with Syria, and ultimately, a peace process was initiated in Geneva as the Syrian civil war rages on for almost three years (the “three year anniversary” of the conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 people took place on March 15, 2014).

The Muslim world is entangled in a militarized version of the Sunni-Shi’ite schism, with Saudi Arabia leading the Sunni side (and feeling increasingly isolated by doing so) while Iran is leading the small number of Shi’ite-majority or Shi’ite-led states (and is stymieing its international isolation by engaging in nuclear talks with the West – to the consternation of Saudi Arabia as well as Israel). The United States was predisposed to support Saudi Arabia in this intra-Muslim struggle (if not war) when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was President of Iran; but a new, more moderate and accommodating administration has been elected in Tehran as of 2013. Iran’s new President – Hassan Rouhani, who has written a book on national security and nuclear diplomacy – is successfully engaged in negotiations with the West over Iran’s “nuclear program” and has convinced the U.S. and her allies (except for Israel, of course) that Iran’s indigenous nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes – for the general of electricity – and that uranium enriched by or in Iran would not be used for nuclear weapons or for military purposes. In this particular case, President Obama lived true to his 2009 speech in Cairo, in that America needs to use diplomacy to resolve its problems (as opposed to the threat or actual use of military force, like in Iraq).

But it will take decades, if not centuries, for the existing mistrust, suspicion, and inequality between the East and the West – between the Islamic world and the developed world – to be overcome. Though the West has entrenched democratic systems and has enjoyed human rights and freedoms for more than 150 years, Muslim countries continue to be run by dictators or by despotic monarchies: even where democracies exist, they do so in extremely fragile forms and early stages rather than those where mature democratic processes and institutions can be found. On top of that, there is a general perception among conservative Muslims that democracy – or the principle of democratic governance – runs contrary to the tenets of Shariah law, and to the way the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Caliphs ruled over the Muslim Ummah. In fact, it was not until the end of the First World War in 1918 that the Ottoman Caliphate still existed, and Muslims all over the world had a spiritual as well as quasi-political global leader whose control extended over the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medina. This was the final nail in the coffin of indigenous systems of governance developed and evolved by Muslims themselves: they had been under attack when colonizers overtook the Mughal empire between the 1600s and the 1850s. Even when the War on Terror began, U.S. President George Bush made public relations foibles by using the term “crusade” and thus riling the Muslim world – which had fought almost a dozen “crusades” in the sense of Christians and Muslims clashing over territory, especially over the Holy Land of Palestine and Jerusalem. In the September 7, 2002 issue of CounterPunch, columnist Alexander Cockburn authored an opinion column titled “The Tenth Crusade” in which he numbered the War on Terrorism to follow nine medieval Crusades between 1095 and 1272, omitting from his count the Alexandrian Crusade of 1365 and the Crusade of Nicopolis of 1396. Cockburn is thus usually credited with coining the term, which is almost exclusively used by critics of the US-led operations. Later, political commentator James Pinkerton referred to the War on Terror as the “Twelfth Crusade” in a Newsday article issued December 3, 2003; although he tried to give a positive spin to the term and its modern-day usage, describing crusades as “defensive wars” rather than “Christian invasions”, Pinkerton’s attempt has been overshadowed by references to the title of Cockburn’s article.

Eventually, it boils down to: what has the West learned, how has the Muslim world has changed and transformed between 2001 and 2014, and most importantly, what lies ahead in terms of both nation-states and sub-state or non-state actors. The events that have taken place since the start of the 21st century have many lessons for both the West and for Muslims, and it is by mutual effort and by meeting each other half-way – and by accepting each other’s principled stances – that the decades and centuries of mistrust and inequality can be transformed into a new epoch of cooperation and collaboration. In this sense, Obama’s “new beginning” speech has a very profound message for considering individuals, societies, states and regions not as collectives of religious or national identity, but as citizens of a common species; a common humanity, formed over generations of human beings. In that exact sense, the responsibility of both the West and the Muslim world, of both Muslims and non-Muslims, multiplies manifold: what kind of world are we leaving behind for our children and for future generations? What kind(s) of ideas and perceptions do we espouse and pass on? How is our compass of morality arranged and organized – and is it rigid and dogmatic, or flexible, open to change, and tolerant of innovation and new developments? The Muslim world always blames the West of introducing innovations and improvements (technological, societal, political, and otherwise) to soon, while the West always considers Islamic communities to be stuck in their yearning for a regressive system that will take them back 1400 years to the “ideal time” where Shariah law and common law, humanity and practicality, and reason, all were in sync. The concept of extremism – especially in the form of militancy and intolerance, more so than conservative fundamentalism – is a new challenge for both the West and the Islamic world: it remains to be seen whether the latter can overcome this existential threat to Muslim people, communities and nation-states from within, or whether it will collaborate with the West in identifying and eliminating this menace to humanity, to peace and to stability. And then again, there are many ways of eliminating extremism: either by re-indoctrination, and by the introduction of a formerly unaware mindset or identity to new, “groundbreaking” ideas and concepts of tolerance and pluralism, or – unfortunately, as a last resort – by an equivalent if not more powerful application of brute military force, when the extremist militant mindset itself is bent upon using any means necessary.

After the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the West itself is in search of a real economic, political, and military leader more stable (if not more powerful) than the U.S. – for the Islamic world, there has been no such unifying force or banner (since 1918) under which Muslims can rally. But in a global system of multilateral organizations and socioeconomic interdependence, when boundaries are becoming meaningless and technological innovations are reducing distances as well as differences, there are many opportunities for the West and for the Muslim world to develop amicable terms with each other, to understand the brilliances as well as limitations that each side exhibits, and to continue to carve out (and tread on) a middle path that is acceptable to both. This must, indeed, be the work of all human beings on earth: to make the world a better place for all.