Thursday, June 4, 2009

Respect is a two-way street. Recent polls suggest that about half of Americans hold negative views of Islam, and this is not merely blind bigotry. If they want respect, Muslim states must seek active ways to improve relations with the United States. We would like to see a generally more positive and welcoming tone, with fewer anti-American harangues in official media and firebrand sermons in state-controlled mosques. Those countries that support terrorism - either through financing, providing materiel or intelligence support, or safe havens - must immediately stop. Respect for Islam would be much more palatable if the Muslim world decriminalized conversion to other faiths and allowed true religious freedom, as Muslims enjoy in America.

With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, many Muslim leaders seem to expect progress to come through the United States pressuring Israel unilaterally to surrender to Arab demands. But they, not U.S. officials, will play the decisive role in settling the matter, since they are the countries refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist (excepting Egypt and Jordan). The peace process would be pushed immeasurably forward by Arab leaders taking concrete steps in that direction.

A good first step would be to end the Arab League boycott of Israel, which will also help develop the Palestinian economy. Muslim governments can make gestures such as granting civilian overflight rights, establishing postal and telecommunications ties and promoting regional travel. The Arab states should pursue diplomatic meetings and multilateral accords, brokered by Egypt and Jordan, with a view toward establishing a framework for full diplomatic recognition. Israel has shown a desire to do all these things, so the ball is in the Muslim world’s court.

With respect to U.S. military intervention in the region, it was not without cause. The strategic economic importance of the Middle East, coupled with the rise of global Islamic terrorism and the actions of rogue states, necessitated some form of response. With the security equation turning ineluctably on the issue of the Iranian quest for regional hegemony and nuclear capability, a U.S. military presence seems assured for the near future.

In the long run, many of the challenges that have brought U.S. forces to the Middle East can be met by nonmilitary means. In a word, the region needs freedom. Broad reforms centered on free markets, freedom of religion and freedom of speech will go a long way toward solving the underlying and systemic problems faced by most countries in the region. Unleashing the human capital of the region will also help broaden and strengthen their economies. If the Muslim states want to see fewer Americans in uniform, they should establish conditions that do not give rise to challenges that threaten U.S. national security.

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