The relationship between the United States and Muslims has been so damaged after eight years of the Bush administration that the whole world is now wondering: what is Barack Obama going to say to Muslims? What should he say to restore confidence and trust?
First it's necessary to analyse the main causes of the deep mistrust we find today, not only in Muslim majority countries, but among African, Asian and western Muslims as well. For decades, and especially since the 11 September 2001, Muslims around the world have been getting messages from the US that are disturbing in both their substance and their form.
The former president, George W Bush, was perceived as aggressive, often arrogant, narrow-minded and even deaf when he had to tackle Islamic issues and matters related to Muslim majority countries or the Middle East. Beyond his words of respect, Muslims always kept in mind his first spontaneous religious references to a "crusade" and the "axis of evil". The "war on terror", the bombing of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the lies about weapons of mass destruction, the extraordinary renditions and the evidence of torture that came to light have had a cumulative effect in testifying that Muslims' lives and dignity seemed to be of almost no value. Beyond Bush's rhetoric, his administration showed neither respect nor any sense of justice towards Muslims, and its blind and unilateral support of Israel added to this testimony.
Barack Obama has this legacy to reverse. In talking to the Muslims, he should talk to the US and the west as well, for the scars of mistrust are deep. Obama has been very smart and cautious in delivering his political messages during the first months of his presidency. He repeatedly expressed his respect towards Islam and Muslims, announcing the closure of Guantanamo and cessation of torture and even becoming tougher towards the Israeli government regarding settlements. These are positive steps one should not deny.
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Yet, symbolic acts and speeches are not enough. What we expect from the new president is effective and necessary action as well as a change in attitude. Humility is a key factor. In our global age, the United States might still be the most powerful nation in the world, but it does not have the monopoly on what is good and right. Being open to the world starts with being open to all civilisations and by acknowledging the potential positive contribution of every religion and culture. Islam is a great civilisation and Barack Obama should bring a message of true and deep respect by announcing that we all have to learn from each other and that he will commit himself to spreading knowledge of cultural and religious diversity in the United States itself. Humility means we all have to learn from one another and America should be ready to learn from Islam and Muslims as well as from the Hindus or the Buddhists. Paradoxically, how Obama intends to deal with education and religious diversity at home will be the true indicator of his real policy towards Islam and Muslims in the world.
No civilisation can claim to have a monopoly on universal values and no one can claim to be always faithful to his own values. President Obama must stress the ideal values and human rights the United States stands for but he has also to acknowledge mistakes, failures and contradictions when it comes to their implementation. Lack of consistency is a weakness shared by all nations. The best way for the president to be heard when he calls for human rights and democratisation and announces the start of a new era in relations with Muslims would be to start by being constructively self-critical and acknowledging that the US can and will do much better in respecting the values it stands for. It should do so by implementing just policies towards the Muslim world and poor countries. This humble attitude, based on the imperative duty of consistency, is not a position of weakness but the exact opposite: in this way, Obama can remind leaders as well as ordinary Muslims of their own inconsistencies and duties. Only a consistent and self-critical US president can remind Muslims that they have to act against corruption, extremism, dictatorships, lack of educational policies, discrimination towards women and poor people and be heard with a minimum of trust.
Muslims are waiting for action and they know from experience (with the US as well as with their own governments) that politicians are good at words. Barack Obama has a very special status today in the world and especially in the Muslim world. He is one of the only US presidents who has had both the background and the capacity to be more than simply a symbol spreading beautiful words. It would be sad to lose this historic opportunity and one must hope he has a vision and an efficient strategy for his country and the world. On domestic issues, when it comes to discrimination, security, immigration and equal opportunities, Barack Obama must help us to forget that he is African-American by promoting promote equal rights and justice. At the international level he should help us forget that his father was a Muslim by refusing to be shy or apologetic and respecting the rights of both individuals and populations in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The message he is to send to Muslims should come from a president positioning himself beyond specific colour and religious belonging with humility, consistency and respect. While delivering his speech he should make it clear that after many years of deafness in Washington, he has begun to listen.