Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
February 19, 2009 - 1:00am

Is a new page being turned in relations between the Arab and Islamic world and the United States? It would seem so, to judge by many of the interactions at the three-day annual US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, hosted by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latest gathering last weekend of over 160 engaged scholars, activists, journalists, scientists, officials, religious figures, artists and ex-officials from across the Islamic world and the US seemed to reflect important new attitudes and subtle changes in perceptions between the two groups.

One reason for this is the change in policy and style of the new Obama administration, whose symbolic and substantive gestures in its first weeks in office send signals of its desire to improve relations with Islamic societies. Another is the realization within many Islamic societies that they are heading for catastrophe if they remain on their current trajectories, including perpetual warfare, deep internal divisions, and mass emigration of their most talented young men and women. Yet another is that windows of opportunity may be opening - perhaps only for a brief period - to reverse the deterioration in relations between the Arab and Islamic world and the US.

A powerful signal of the new start that may be occurring in US-Muslim ties is the strong anticipation among many in our societies that the Obama team will usher in a more reasonable set of foreign policies that could stem rising anti-Americanism. That many Arabs and Muslims look to Obama with some expectation of change and anticipation of better days ahead indicates better than anything else - as a former Pakistani ambassador noted - the deep reservoir of goodwill towards the US in the Muslim world.

Several former senior American officials for their part reflected the softer tone that seems to be emerging in Washington vis-a-vis Arab and Muslim issues. For the first time in the eight years that I have participated in these annual meetings, American participants seemed less defensive - perhaps mainly because George W. Bush was no longer their president. They seemed more inclined to explore avenues towards solutions, and to examine how both sides might work together in this direction, rather than merely repeating their exasperation with the deficiencies of Arab-Islamic societies, including terrorism.

Citizens of mostly Arab and Asian Islamic societies for their part seemed this year to be more humble in acknowledging their own need to take the initiative to reform themselves, and not only to wait for others - especially the US and fellow Western powers - to treat Arabs-Muslims more equitably, and less colonially.

The breakthrough for both sides probably reflects the fact that they simultaneously realize that the antagonistic, violent, selfish paths they have both followed in recent years - and certainly since September 11, 2001 - have failed, only aggravating matters. This is combined with the growing recognition all around that mutual "respect" is the key that will unlock the door to better days ahead, with security, stability and perhaps even some prosperity for all.

Obama's election and the quick moves he made in his first three days in office-deciding on the closing of the Guantanamo prison, banning torture, naming respected special envoys to the two burning fires of Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan, playing diplomatic footsies with Iran, and speaking directly to Muslims on an agenda of mutual respect and shared interests - sent an emphatic message that many Arabs and Muslims have heard loud and clear.

These policy changes and rhetorical flourishes need to be reciprocated now from our side, by both governments and those more nimble elements in civil society who have the courage and the capacity to engage the US on an equal footing - leaving behind the bad old ways of American-Western colonialism, neo-conservatism, and "orientalism."

The Americans, as one former senior White House security official said, cannot understand or absorb the message they seem to hear from the Arab-Islamic world - that we want Washington to be more engaged, but also to leave us alone.

There remains one major, glaring weakness in the American approach to these issues, which is a persistent refusal to accept blame for those aspects of US foreign policy that tend to aggravate violence, extremism and instability in the Arab-Asian world. Near blind US support for Israel - or near total Israeli veto power over decision-making in Washington - remains an issue that American officials, and even ex-officials, cannot discuss comfortably. It is the black hole in their moral-political universe with which they must grapple more honestly if they expect the world to take them more seriously.

This is a rare moment of change and opportunity, as the mainstreams of American and Arab-Islamic societies seem today to focus on how to work together for real change based on policy adjustments by both sides. Expressions of mutual respect have unlocked a once closed door; we need to burst through it.


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