Building Bridges

What will it take to improve America’s standing in the Muslim world over the next four years? With conservatives and liberals calling each other Islamophobes and apologists, it often seems like there’s nothing but disagreement about how to answer this question.

But last September in Washington, D.C., a bipartisan, interfaith, and interdisciplinary group of 34 American leaders—including people as different as Madeleine Albright, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Cor­doba Initiative, and former GOP State Department official Richard Armitage—came together and proved otherwise. This diverse group was convened by the nonprofits Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute. They had some advice for the next administration:

First, President Obama must start early with peace efforts in Israel-Palestine, listening to both sides in the first year of his administration, rather than putting it off until the last year, as Presidents Bush and Clinton did.

Second, the administration should start talking to America’s adversaries. The new president should commit to diplomatic engagement with Iran as part of a broader movement that emphasizes diplomacy over military action. The current U.S. military budget is more than $600 billion, which is more than 40 times the budget of the State Department. More money would give American diplomats—the public face of our society on the ground—a greater presence in Muslim-majority countries.

The Obama administration must invest in targeted economic assistance, which is vastly more effective per dollar than military spending. During the Bush administration, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused America’s image to plunge in many places, it spiked in Indonesia when American aid poured in after the tsunami. President Obama should declare America’s new instruments of change to be books and business, not bombs. A good model would be the proposal for child education, adult literacy programs, health clinics, and infrastructure improvements in Pakistan that then-Sen. Joe Biden, along with Sen. Richard Lugar, proposed in July.

A huge number of young Muslims graduate from universities every year to a market devoid of job opportunities. The U.S. should encourage public-private partnerships to improve the economies in struggling Muslim-majority countries and work directly with foreign governments to secure property rights and reduce corruption. As an added bonus, expanding economies overseas could stimulate the U.S. economy as well.

AMERICA’S TARNISHED reputation means that direct aid will sometimes be ineffective; in fact, U.S. standing is so low that U.S. support can easily delegitimize a political figure or movement. For example, human rights activists in Iran spoke out against Bush administration attempts to fund democracy promotion in their country, saying that such efforts hindered internal reform movements. The next president must deliberate carefully on when to broadcast U.S. actions and when to work behind the scenes, allowing others to take the credit.

A lack of contact and knowledge has led American society and the societies of Muslim-majority countries to develop strong and often dangerously incorrect perceptions about each other. Such ignorance leaves people vulnerable to fear-based propaganda such as the video Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, which practically equates Islam with terrorism, and which the little-known but well-funded Clarion Fund mailed to 28 million American households before the presidential election. To counteract fear and ignorance, the president should propose an educational initiative about the many faces of global Islam. High school social studies classes should learn about the core tenets of that faith, and they should do so in the company of exchange students from Muslim-majority countries.

Also, the U.S. should relax its visa policies so that more Muslim businesspeople, students, and refugees who want to work, study, or find refuge in our country are not unduly harassed at the border. Our system is strong and flexible enough to do a better job of welcoming the innocent while protecting us from terrorists—and people-to-people interaction works wonders for public diplomacy efforts.

America’s standing in the Muslim world will not change overnight, but with a sustained and multifaceted approach, we can begin to repair the damage done over the last eight years. —Nate Van Duzer

Nate Van Duzer is policy assistant at Sojourners.

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