After the events of 9/11, relations between the US and the Islamic world suffered a serious setback when the neo-cons prevailed on the Bush administration to pursue a policy that was justifiably perceived by the Muslims as highly aggressive, prejudiced and unilateral. America’s invasion of Afghanistan to punish Al Qaeda and Taliban, followed by the “war of choice” against Iraq and blind support of Israel widened the cleavage. Moreover, Bush administration’s hostile policy towards the Islamic regime of Iran and the treatment of Muslim prisoners further heightened the discord. From the American perspective attacks of Sept 11, 2001, and subsequent acts of violence by radical Islamic militants on civilians in other parts of the world reinforced the belief among many Americans and the West that Islam was a religion that was hostile towards them.
President Obama wants to radically transform this relationship and develop a better understanding with the Muslim world. Having been born to a Muslim father and lived in Muslim countries and the goodwill he enjoys among them he clearly considers himself better equipped to open a new chapter in their relationship. The speech in Cairo was a deliberate attempt and an initiation of a process of reconciliation. His clear differentiation that US is not at war with Islam but is fighting the militants who are killing innocent civilians was meant to give clarity to the new policy and to gain confidence of the Muslims. And his reiteration that force alone is not the answer was a reference to the dialogue he was initiating with the Muslim world and with certain groups and countries hostile to US.
President Obama’s categorical support for democracy must have gone extremely well with the people as was obvious by the response of the audience but would have made the rulers especially of Arab countries somewhat uneasy. He did qualify his remarks to mollify the rulers that US has no intentions of imposing democracy on any country and it is for the people to decide what type of system they want to adapt. Nonetheless, he gave a clear message that rulers of Muslim world should promote policies that should give a voice and dignity to the people and move away from authoritarianism and repression. There appeared a definite effort at building a relationship not only with the regimes but as much with the people of Muslim countries so as to counter America’s negative image. The other striking feature of his address was its focus on the younger generation and on women’s rights.
As expected, he also extended his hand of friendship to Iran and was willing to accept its right to acquire civil nuclear power, provided it does not proceed with the weapons programme. Although Iran has courageously withstood sanctions and attempts at isolation but in the process its economy has been badly hurt. Moreover, its nuclear programme raises paranoia not just in Israel but as much in the Arab world. For these reasons Iran is likely to reciprocate to Obama’s overtures. US administration too needs support of Iran to stabilise Iraq as well as Afghanistan. Once relations are normalised, United States is likely to resume interest in Iran’s oil and gas market. As both countries need each other it is possible that they may move at a faster pace to resolve their differences after Iranian elections are over.
On issues of nuclear disarmament and arms control President Obama was forthright and encouraging. The United States and Russia have already started negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament to reduce nuclear weapons below levels set in the START treaty of 1991. His endorsement of a world free of nuclear weapons and the inequitable nature of the NPT were indeed heartening. But one has see, how the US and Russian talks on disarmament progress and the ideal goal of Global Zero is realised.
Most significant was his policy statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he categorically supported establishment of a two-nation state and strong opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. He made no mention of the status of Jerusalem but said that it was a holy and revered place for the three Abrahamic religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims, indicating that Israel will have to accept and accommodate this reality. If President Obama is really able to convince Israel to accept a two-state solution, withdraw to 1967 borders and stop building settlements then it would dramatically transform the relationship between US and the Islamic world and weaken Al Qaeda’s ability to capitalise on the injustices that the people of Palestine continue to suffer.
President Obama’s acknowledgement of Hamas being representative of a section of Palestinian people was a major departure from the Bush administration policy of branding them as terrorist. There were clear indications that his administration would be more equitable and retain a balance in its relations between Israel and Palestinians. Doubts however linger in the minds of many if Obama would be able to implement this new policy on Middle East in view of the hard line attitude adopted by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and the strong pro-Israeli lobby that exists in the United States.