Total Pageviews

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Gaining Ground

America in Battle for Muslim Hearts and Minds
06/12/09Email this story to a friend
America’s war against Islamic extremists is at least as much about winning hearts and minds as about military prowess.
Whether the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims sympathize with the extremists, or turn against them, will largely determine the conflict’s duration and cost. Which is why Osama bin Laden, the fugitive al-Qaeda leader, did President Barack Obama a big favor last week.
Hours before President Obama made his much-anticipated speech of outreach to the Muslim world in Egypt the other day, Mr. bin Laden issued an audio message, played by Al-Jazeera across the Middle East.
The result was that it came across as a debate, which worked in President Obama’s favor.
Both men were appealing to the same audience: the Islamic world in general and the Middle East in particular, and neither was playing from a position of advantage. Mr. bin Laden has been steadily losing popularity in Muslim nations in recent years, judging from polls, and he can have no greater fear than that downtrodden Arabs are turning away from his violent, medieval vision.
His message was a hackneyed and grasping exposition of those fears. He portrayed President Obama as sowing the seeds of “revenge and hatred” in the Muslim world, particularly Pakistan. He resorted to familiar fear-mongering, warning Americans, yet again, to prepare for the consequences.
In a separate message, Mr. bin Laden’s Egyptian-born deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Muslims not to be taken in by President Obama’s “polished words.” It is hard to escape the conclusion that al-Qaeda’s leaders are worried about the appeal of the new American president.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo was an eloquent counterpoint.
Far from spewing hatred or issuing edicts, he raised issues that are live in mosques and at dinner tables throughout the Middle East. Rather than prescribing American-style democracy as the only antidote, he offered both a dialogue and a reasoned explanation of the American policies in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan that so inflame popular opinion in the Middle East.
In a speech no previous American president could have delivered, President Obama stressed his familiarity with Islam and his Muslim roots (something he downplayed during the presidential campaign) while asserting America’s right to defend itself against violent extremists.
A single speech, particularly one longer on lofty rhetoric than specific policy prescriptions, is hardly going to swing opinion in the Arab street, but, set against what Osama bin Laden offers, it almost certainly will provoke thought and help reset American relations with the Muslim world. There is a long way to go: In Egypt, only 22 percent viewed America favorably last year, and just 32 percent of Muslims believed that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, but it seemed from numerous reports that President Obama was at least getting a hearing, which was the goal.
In the end, the appeal of bin Ladenism will be overcome only by a more tolerant and mainstream Islam, nurtured by national leaders who offer their people hope and economic opportunity. History will tell whether that emerges, but President Obama’s speech was at least a welcome reassertion of the “soft power” that the United States used to great advantage during the Cold War, another long conflict against an ideological enemy.

No comments: