By David Motadel

When United States President Barack Obama came to office in January 2009, he set out his ambition for partnership between America and the Muslim world. His efforts may turn out to be just another episode in the long history of Washington's uneasy attempts to promote good US-Muslim relations.

Since becoming President, Obama has made repeated attempts to address the Islamic world, calling for a strengthening of US Muslim relations. Speaking in Jakarta last November to an audience of six thousand dignitaries and students, he urged them to overcome 'suspicion and mistrust', while asserting that 'America is not and never will be at war with Islam'. The speech given in the country with the world's largest Muslim population was intended to reach an audience well beyond Indonesian borders. 'The relationship between the United States and Muslim communities has frayed over many years,' he acknowledged. 'As president I have made it a priority to begin to repair these relations.' To underline his message, Obama paid a visit to the Istiqlal Mosque, South-east Asia's largest Islamic house of worship.

The Jakarta address stands in line with a number of previous speeches, most notably those in Ankara and Cairo in the summer of 2009. In the Egyptian capital, Obama called for a 'partnership between America and Islam'. Quoting the Koran, he introduced a new tone in US relations with Islam, stating: 'I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.' These speeches mark a break with the rhetoric employed by members of the previous administration, who used words like 'crusade' and 'Islamofacism'. Designed to confront notions of an antagonism between the United States and Islam, the partnership is also intended to combat popular, often religiously charged anti- American resentment in the Muslim world.

American Efforts

The Obama administration takes seriously Islam as a political force in world affairs. Every day, US troops engage in military conflict on Muslim soil in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are frequently confronted with religious violence. At the same time, the threat of international terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists remains acute. Hotbeds of religious terrorism are located not only in Afghanistan and Waziristan, but also in places like Somalia or Yemen. In the name of Islam, extremists continue to call for war against the United States, among other countries. It seems only logical that policy makers in Washington consider the politics of religion when engaging with the Muslim world.

Aside from the president's high-profile speeches, Washington has made some less noticed attempts to win the hearts and minds of pious Muslims across the world. In the days leading up to Obama's visit to Jakarta last November, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Egyptian-American imam of the Al- Farah Mosque in lower Manhattan and head of the controversial Muslim community centre close to Ground Zero, arrived in the Indonesian capital. His mission was to promote America as a friend of Islam and partner of the Muslim world. After a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he delivered a lecture entitled 'Promoting Moderate Islam and Striving for Harmony among Civilisations in the 21st Century' at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, attended by Cabinet ministers and religious leaders. The 'real battleground is between moderates of all religions and radicals of all religions,' he made clear.

Over the last months Imam Rauf has become a pivotal figure in Washington's policy towards Islam. Last summer, the State Department sent him on a Middle East tour to promote US-Muslim relations. To a Bahrain newspaper, he announced: 'I see the articles of independence as more compliant with the principles of Islam than what is available in many of the current Muslim countries.'

Overall, however, Washington's efforts to engage with Islam seem to be scattered widely and uncoordinated. More than a year after Obama's Cairo speech, the contours of his 'partnership' with the Muslim world remain vague and unclear. Is a policy towards Islam feasible at all, given the heterogeneity of the 'Muslim world'? Can it be effective in contributing to global security, considering the rift between the peaceful majority of pious Muslims and a minority of radicals, unlikely to be impressed by warm words from Washington? Will it be taken seriously as long as global symbolic issues like Guantanamo and religiously charged conflicts, most importantly the one in Israel-Palestine, remain unresolved?

Past Relations

Over the last century, America has repeatedly tried to engage with Islam but most of these attempts were informed by misconceptions and, at times, bore unforeseen consequences. US army officials first engaged with political Islam at the turn of the twentieth century when encountering an insurgency in the Muslim Moro province of the Philippines. Islamic fighters known as the juramentado even launched suicide attacks against their colonial rulers. Although Washington pursued an official policy of noninterference in religious matters, in the field military officials cared little for the religious autonomy of the Moros, disregarding the Islamic legal system and in some places sponsoring Protestant missionary activity. During the Second World War, the American military discovered Islam as an instrument of propaganda. The US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - distributed religious pamphlets that called for jihad against German troops in Northern Africa. When the British and US armies landed in Algeria and Morocco to launch Operation Torch, agents of the OSS air dropped pamphlets in Arabic, informing the local populations that 'the American Holy Warriors have fight the great Jihad of Freedom'.

In the 1950s, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower made every effort to use Saudi Arabia as an explicitly religious counterweight to the secular pan-Arab nationalist regime in Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. More far-reaching, though, were US efforts to employ Islam as a 'green belt against communism'. In the aftermath of the partition of India, for instance, as detailed in the works of the historians Harold Isaacs and Andrew Rotter, American diplomats leaned away from India and towards Pakistan because they viewed Hinduism as timid, soft and weak, whereas Islam was seen as energetic, decisive and tough-minded in the face of the perceived communist threat. Across Asia, American emissaries affirmed that Washington would stand with God fearing Muslims against communist atheism. This engagement reached its peak in the 1980s with the support of political Islam against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, where US officials distributed not only stinger missiles but also Korans to the mujahiddin fighters. There is little doubt among historians that, in the end, the jihad sponsored by America in Afghanistan contributed considerably to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc - and also eventually to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

When invading Iraq in 2003, US forces were often surprised by the power of religion as a factor to be contended with in the field. Soon after the conquest of Baghdad, American military commanders made attempts to obtain edicts from religious leaders endorsing the coalition's policies and administration, while struggling with fatwas that challenged Washington's policies on the ground. Just after the invasion, in April 2003, the US Central Command spokesman announced that the influential Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani had issued a decree instructing Muslims in Iraq to remain calm and not to interfere with the forces seeking to defeat Saddam Hussein's army. Yet the existence of this text, which has never been published, remains doubtful. A few months later, a two-page fatwa by Sistani confronted an American plan to introduce an Iraqi constitution before general elections were held. All efforts of US authorities to manoeuvre around the decree, including attempts to win statements from other religious countering figures, failed. The Coalition Provisional Authority eventually had to rework its original transition plan. 'The unravelling of the Bush administration's script for political transition in Iraq began with a fatwa,' the Washington Post commented.

Since 2003, the US military has learned a great deal about religious forces in Muslim conflict zones. Last summer, for example, when the evangelical preacher Terry Jones threatened to hold a Koran-burning day in Florida, the US army commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was among the first to express concern that the event would threaten the security of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a cable from the US Department of State, published last month by WikiLeaks, in May 2009 Washington grew worried when noting that the hajj pilgrimage was increasingly used by Taliban emissaries to traffic money across the Saudi border. The hajj seemed to pose a impending security threat to American troops in Afghanistan; but Washington saw its hands bound. General Petraeus' warning reflects the fact that the administration is conscious of the politics of Islam. Yet the American government's policy responses remain ad hoc. Obama's partnership is still fuzzy.

(David Motadel is a Research Visiting Fellow at the History Department at Harvard and holds a doctoral fellowship at the German Historical Institute in Washington.)


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