From Tamara Cofman Wittes
I’m in Doha for the 5th Annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum—my fourth year at this annual confab (organized by my fine colleagues in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution) that brings together Americans with Muslims from Nigeria to Malaysia and everywhere in between. This year we’ve included a number of prominent faith leaders, such as Amr Khaled, Egypt’s massively popular TV preacher, and Bob Roberts of the Texas megachurch, Northwood. Despite the diversity of the conference’s participants, though, the U.S.-Arab relationship usually sets the tone of the proceedings—and for the past four years, that tone has been bitter indeed. This year is different.
In previous years, our opening session has featured senior Arab voices lambasting American interventionism in Iraq and abandonment of Israeli-Palestinian peace, alongside provocative (and often tone-deaf) defenses of U.S. policy by Americans like Karen Hughes and Philip Zelikow. This year, the opening keynote was instead delivered by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who argued that Muslims in Afghanistan and Bosnia were right to expect and accept American military intervention to relieve their suffering, and America was just in coming to their aid.
After his speech, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad seemed to echo Karzai’s themes: common interests between Muslims and the West in fighting terrorism, improving regional stability, and building the foundations for prosperity and freedom. Karzai pointed to the global contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction as a symbol of Western-Islamic world cooperation; Babacan proudly referred to the Turkish accession talks with the European Union as evidence that the values of the Union are not essentially Western but rather universal in their appeal.
The lack of a fire-breathing Amr Moussa or Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi on the program certainly made a difference. But changes in the region and in U.S. policy also help explain the slackening of the resentment that has accompanied our past years’ discussions on America’s role in the Muslim Middle East. Violence in Iraq is down, there’s new (if fragile) hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and pushy rhetoric from the White House, once directed at autocratic Arab allies, is now reserved for Iran, which Americans and Arabs both perceive as threatening. A cynical colleague of mine here argued that the positive tone from the regional leaders at the conference reflects age-old realities of international politics: when America is weak, he said, everyone loves to beat up on us—but when America is stronger, everyone wants to be on our side. That’s great—as long as the current lull in Iraqi violence lasts.
Quite honestly, though, I don’t think the relative love-fest at this year’s meeting is all ascribable either to regional shifts or to the conference organizers’ choice of speakers. The most powerful explanation for the change is evident in the overwhelming fact that all anyone at this conference really wants to talk about is Barack Obama.
A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he’d heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are “for Obama.” The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.
But more important is just the prospect of a refreshing shift in the the breeze off the Potomac. More than the changes in the region, it seems to be anticipated changes in Washington that are drawing the eyes of my Arab counterparts and giving the conference its unusually forward-looking tone. We’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts!
MESH Update, February 18: AFP reports that Obama “won overwhelming support in a mock election by more than 200 American and Muslim delegates at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in the Qatari capital [on Monday]. His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates won only a handful of votes.”
Update from Tamara Cofman Wittes, February 22: I did not witness a straw poll like that described by AFP in any of the conference sessions I attended, nor did my research assistant. I’d love to hear the specifics from the AFP correspondent to back up this story.