Obama’s outreach to Muslims proves tough sell: analysis

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Nine months ago President Barack Obama offered Muslims a “new beginning” with the United States in a speech in Cairo that was the centrepiece of his efforts to restore America’s image around the world.

Yesterday, Kuwaiti public servant, Yacoub Hussein, 45, voices the disappointment felt by many Muslims, particularly in the Middle East, with the Obama administration’s perceived failure to make good on that promise.
“We were optimistic, but there were no results,” he said.

Obama aides are defensive about such criticism and point to scientific, educational and technological initiatives launched after the Cairo speech, a Muslim entrepreneurship summit scheduled for April, as well Obama’s determination to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

But the litmus test for many Muslims is progress on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Obama tried to jumpstart last year. That effort went nowhere after Israel rebuffed his demand for a complete freeze on settlements.
“Maybe the speech raised expectations too high in terms of what a young administration could accomplish in year one on a very difficult, intractable problem,” said Stephen Grand, an expert on US-Islamic relations in Washington.

The administration is now trying to launch indirect talks between the two sides, but this new effort was set back last week when Israel announced plans to build 1600 homes in contested east Jerusalem, drawing unusually blunt condemnation from an infuriated Washington.

Fairly or unfairly, many Muslims perceive Obama as being soft on Israel while pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks.
“Muslims were expecting Obama to represent something new because of what he represents in American politics. They haven’t seen that. What they’ve really seen is a return to traditional diplomacy,” said Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

After being overshadowed by the nuclear standoff with Iran and the war in Afghanistan, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is back in the spotlight as he prepares to head to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, next week.

Muslim world speech 2.0?

Obama will deliver a speech in Jakarta in which he will highlight Indonesia as both a Muslim-majority country and one of the world’s biggest democracies. He will also review progress since his Cairo speech, aides said.

The United States believes improved ties with the Muslim world bolsters its own national security, helps build alliances against Iran and erodes support for groups like al Qaeda.

In Jakarta, Obama should emphasize “there is nothing incompatible between Islam and democracy,” said Grand, who took part in Brookings’ US Islamic World Forum in Doha in February when Muslim delegates voiced frustration with US policies in the Middle East. The highest-level US delegation ever to attend the annual gathering found itself on the defensive.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged Muslim fears that the US commitment is insufficient or insincere. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: “We can’t speak honestly at a forum like this without recognizing the widespread frustration many people feel. Much of it is justified. Some of it is not.”

Taking stock

Columnist Fouad al-Hashem, who writes for Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, says improving US-Muslim ties is a two-way street.
“We shouldn’t put all the blame on Obama. The Arab world needs to take 10 steps toward Obama, if Obama takes one step.”

In a White House meeting room, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes ticked off accomplishments since the Cairo speech, notably reducing the US military presence in Iraq.
“The (Cairo) speech takes a long view of what we are trying to achieve. What we hope to do is show concerted and steady effort and progress in those political and security issues … while also building these broader partnerships in areas like education, science and technology and innovation,” he said.

The administration remained committed to restarting Middle East peace talks, he said.
“The proof of our commitment will be borne out in the fact that we are going to continue despite the difficulties. We are not going to let the inevitable setbacks that come with this conflict deter our pursuit for peace.”

In Gaza, where many Palestinians are disheartened by the lack of progress, posters for a media event in January to mark Obama’s one year in office asked: “A year after Obama what has changed?”

Not much, say Gazans. Many may be hoping though that Obama tries to answer a different question in his speech in Jakarta: “What next?”

Pic: Alexandra mosque in Egpyt