Negotiators offer options, discuss obstacles for U.S.-Muslim relations


Istanbul’s Blue Mosque looms over an image of U.S. President Barack Obama ’91

In Ankara last week, President Barack Obama ’91 could not have been more explicit: “we are not at war with the Muslim world,” he said, in a widely-reported address to the Turkish parliament. Such seemingly obvious but important statements – along with moments of symbolism, such as Obama’s visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque – might be among the most significant actions the U.S. should undertake to improve relations with Muslim-majority states and movements, according to a panel of experts gathered before a well-groomed crowd in Austin East on Tuesday.

Assembled to turn over the recommendations made in “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World,” a report by the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, they included David Fairman of the Consensus Building Institute, one of the directors of the Leadership Group, Shamil Idriss, an advisor to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and Adil Najam of Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. The panel was assembled under the aegis of the Program on Negotiation, and moderated by Professor Robert Mnookin ’68.

Fairman began with an articulation of the main points of the report, which he said tried to articulate reasons for rising tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world and suggest a strategy for easing them. Among its main points, he continued, were that the U.S. and the Muslim world were not locked in an “irredeemably opposed clash of civilizations”, but were engaged in discrete conflicts caused by the actions of the U.S., some state actors, and many non-state actors. The report also calls on the U.S. to address a shared sense of fate and identity among Muslims.

Among its strategic recommendations, Fairman said, were an improved use of diplomacy, a focus on encouraging democratic principles rather than specific institutions, the need for dialogue and exchange, and a recognition of the shared economic interests between the U.S. and Muslim countries. This last point, he felt, was especially critical, given the high youth unemployment rate in the Middle East, and the opportunities for investment available through Middle Eastern capital.

“Hitting flies with cannonballs”: Tackling non-state actors

Fairman then went beyond the report to address specific negotiation challenges the U.S. would face in dealing with Muslim states in the future. Among these issues were the question of how the U.S. should engage with Islamist groups, which, in many countries, are powerful political forces with strongly anti-American rhetoric. According to Fairman, the Leadership Group reached agreement on a number of criteria for dealing with these movements: the U.S., they said, ought to look at whether the group has a substantial base of public support, whether it had interests complementary to those of the U.S., whether its leaders have shown they would halt the use of violence when given the opportunity, whether it would be a potential spoiler if not involved in negotiations, whether engagement would strengthen the position of hardliners in the group or in society, and whether there was a mechanism for engaging these groups through a third party. Where the group could not reach agreement was these criteria’s application to specific groups; it was unclear whether Hamas or Hezbollah would meet them.

Idriss added his impression that there was a widespread lack of understanding about many of the crucial non-state actors with which the U.S. was struggling in the Muslim world. He cited South Asia envoy Richard Holbrooke’s surprise at the lack of information the U.S. had gathered about the Taliban, after over seven years of war in Afghanistan, and noted that State Department officials were continuing to prioritize efforts to counter groups without bothering to understand them or distinguish which were really problematic. Idriss went on to assert that many Americans and Europeans were operating under the false assumption that “with more education and better jobs, people will become less religious,” suggesting that the evidence was to the contrary. He noted that more extremists were actually bred in secular schools, which lacked grounding in tradition, making students more susceptible to simplistic arguments.

Idriss also emphasized that Islamist movements were not monolithic, but had various different motivations and methods for carrying them out. Citing a March 2005 International Crisis Group report, he distinguished political groups, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed at rooting out corrupt governments, from missionary and jihadi groups, which could be further broken down by the nature of their fight (some were engaged in civil wars, others in struggles against occupations, and others operated worldwide). Idriss underscored, however, that this was just one of many ways such groups could be categorized, and that doing so required more knowledge of such groups than most Americans possessed.

Lack of knowledge about the non-state actors involved in conflicts was also a problem in the context of Pakistan, Najam said. Both the U.S. and Pakistan, he argued, “are fighting an enemy they cannot name.” The “Taliban,” he claimed, “means anything to anyone – [they are Taliban] as long as they have facial hair”. Such undifferentiated policies he likened to “trying to hit at flies with cannonballs”. Better understanding of the actors involved was crucial – the U.S., Najam said, had much to gain if it recognized and supported the aspirations of aspects of Pakistani society opposed to both the current government and extremists – elements like the lawyers’ movement that recently restored Harvard Law School Medal of Freedom winner Muhammed Chaudhry to the Supreme Court bench. But unlike in Ukraine or Moldova, Najam said, the U.S. was not quick to embrace the lawyers’ movement as a “revolution”.

Madeleine’s Migraine: The Pakistan puzzle

Overall, Fairman acknowledged that Pakistan was a particularly difficult puzzle – an “international migraine” according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a member of the Leadership Group. According to Fairman, the U.S. chief problems were determining with whom to meet to stabilize the country – its military or freelance elements of its intelligence service, the ISI. The problem of Pakistan, he said, was compounded by the issue of its long-term relationship to Afghanistan and to India.

Najam, who is Pakistani, said he believed that external actors could do from “between little to nothing” to improve the situation there, but could do much to make things worse. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship, he said, involved “constant angst”. Although the U.S. had never had as much a voice in Pakistan as it did today, it has little ability to influence the country, given its government’s decreasing degree of control.

Trust was also a significant problem. “No Americans, including [you people] trust Pakistan, and there is no Pakistani, including this one, who trusts the U.S.,” he claimed. The U.S., he continued, failed to understand the counterproductive means with which it was fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Reading a Pakistani newspaper is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “U.S. drones are killing, and extremists are also killing. A perfect storm is a daily occurrence. Pakistanis wonder who they are dying for.”

He went on to identify three problems handicapping perceptions of the U.S. in Pakistan – and the Muslim world in general. The first, he said, was the “are we there yet?” problem, which leads officials pressed for deadlines to claim false victories. He noted, for example, that the U.S. had managed to eliminate the “number three person” in Al-Qaeda over and over again. The second problem was the “why do they hate us?” question, which he said was now being asked by Pakistanis who felt victimized over errant drone attacks – and entitled to use a language that had first been put into play by the U.S. Finally, he said the U.S. was
held back by the perception that the “global war on terror” was only being fought over American corpses. Despite 2500 Pakistanis being claimed by terror attacks in 2008 and 600 so far this year, Najam said, there was no sense that conflicts in Pakistan were about to become fully part of “America’s war”.

Capping the discussion, Mnookin saw a contradiction between calls for deep U.S. engagement and equally strenuous arguments for American humility. In response, Najam argued that the rule for the moment should definitely skew toward humility. He cited the deal which led to the end of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s undemocratic rule – his stepping down, Najam said, led to elections that were, for the most part, fair – but because the U.S. had been engaged in engineering the deal, their results were distrusted. Mnookin cited another example – the video of a woman in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled Swat valley being legally beaten to death. Even where the U.S.’ hands were tied and intervention was clearly impossible, Mnookin noted, it faced political outrage over the situation it had allowed to develop.

In the end, then, the panelists could only agree on the less problematic alternative of symbolic action – even the smallest motion from the U.S. , Idriss noted, could have been helpful in the context of Israel’s winter war in Gaza. With the exception of this omission, however, the negotiators praised President Obama for his emphasis on symbolic diplomacy. In fact, Fairman observed, the administration appeared to be following the recommendations of the Leadership Group’s report word-for-word; Obama, he said, had “almost ticked off all [its] boxes”.

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