President Obama is trying to hit the reset button on his outreach efforts to the world’s Muslims. He would do better to focus on aggressively promoting freedom rather than pandering to Islam.
The first round of outreach - kicked off by Mr. Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo - was a spectacular failure. Opinion polling on sentiment towards the United States in countries with Muslim majorities showed an initial burst of enthusiasm, followed in 2010 by a collapse. In some cases, Muslim approval of America fell to levels lower than during the waning days of the George W. Bush administration.
Now the White House is using the timing of Osama bin Laden’s death to argue that al Qaeda’s violent approach to political change is passe, and that the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East represent the wave of the future. However, al Qaeda already has answered this argument. In the Spring 2011 edition of the terror group’s English-language magazine Inspire, the lead editorial by Yahya Ibrahim notes that a “line that is being pushed by Western leaders is that because the protests in Egypt and Tunisia were peaceful, they proved al Qaeda - which calls for armed struggle - to be wrong. That is another fallacy. Al Qaeda is not against regime changes through protests but it is against the idea that the change should be only through peaceful means to the exclusion of the use of force.”
Of course, not all change occurring in the Middle East is peaceful. U.S. and NATO warplanes support armed rebels in Libya, and al Qaeda notes that this vindicates their views on violence. “If the protesters in Libya did not have the flexibility to use force when needed,” Mr. Ibrahim says, “the uprising would have been crushed.” This point is also being proved in Syria, where the United States has been deaf to desperate pleas from dissidents being mowed down by regime troops with the assistance of Iran. No mere speech by Mr. Obama will bring a springtime of freedom to Damascus.
Mr. Obama’s fixation on the means by which change is coming also overlooks that the substance of the change may be precisely what al Qaeda has always advocated. The White House has pushed for the participation of religiously-based parties in Egypt’s new government, but if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Cairo, it will pursue domestic and foreign policies indistinguishable from those bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri would implement if he were in charge. Islamism is the objective, whether achieved by bombs or ballots.
Mr. Ibrahim says that in al Qaeda’s opinion, “the revolutions that are shaking the thrones of dictators are good for the Muslims, good for the mujahidin and bad for the imperialists of the West and their henchmen in the Muslim world.” He says the terrorists, “are very optimistic and have great expectations of what is to come.” This optimism is not unfounded. Mr. Obama should shift his focus from pandering to Muslim sensibilities to helping shape the outcome of the changes sweeping the Middle East in a way that reflects American values.
The United States is not at war with Islam, but neither should our nation be promoting it. America has traditionally advocated the principles of freedom of conscience and individual liberty, concepts that are in dire need of support in most Muslim states. Taking an unadulterated stand for freedom in the Middle East would be the most gutsy move Mr. Obama could make.