Stay With Obama's Opening to Muslims

In the wake of the “humbling” of President Obama by American voters there is a lot of talk about what needs to be reversed or buried from his first two years. For the Republicans health care tops the list, closely followed by determination to maintain tax cuts for the wealthy. That is a matter for the American political system. But the rest of us also have a huge stake in what is kept and what is junked on the foreign policy front.

In his first year, President Obama made the rebuilding of America’s reputation and partnerships with the Islamic world a central theme of his presidency. His commitment to the development of trusting, respectful cooperation with the Muslim world needs to be rescued, burnished and supported.

In Ankara in April 2009 he set out his credo: “I know that the trust that binds us has been strained. ... We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree.”

In Cairo in June 2009 he called for a “new beginning.” He was right to do so. There are major responsibilities for those of us in the West if this is to be achieved.

For starters, we need to understand and explain to our publics the differences within the Muslim world. This is not just a question for theologians debating the differences between Sunni, Shiite and Sufi. It is a political recognition that the differences between Turkey’s secular state, Indonesia’s pluralist democracy and the Gulf monarchies are as striking as the similarities.

Further, while the intelligence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States in the recent bomb plots originating in Yemen is a stark demonstration of the vital need for real-time cooperation on security issues, the reason for closer relations between our countries goes well beyond security.

Muslim-majority countries are major players in the benefits of globalization — economic, cultural, scientific, social. And they are major players in confronting its dangers — from water shortages to global health to terrorism to climate change.

In building consent for closer cooperation we have a responsibility to eschew the simplistic language of “moderate” and “extremist” that does so little to explain what people believe. We also have a responsibility to stand up for the institutions that can bring Western and Muslim countries together. For those of us in Europe, the European Union is a prime example — with the power to push ahead the vision of membership for Turkey and a creative and serious partnership with our North Africa neighbors.

However, it is not only the West that must bear responsibility. The leaders of Muslim-majority countries also have their responsibilities. Internal reforms to honor international commitments to human rights, independent courts and press freedoms cannot be a Western imposition, still less a Western peculiarity.

The requirements of an interdependent world are for shared action to secure public goods — from security to financial stability to environmental sustainability. And governments cannot build coalitions of respect when their populations learn only of difference and superiority.

There is also pressing need for shared effort on the great dangers and grievances that will otherwise pull us apart. We in the West need the support of Muslim-majority countries to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan.

Military effort gets the headlines, but peace will only come with a political settlement. Bringing all the Afghan tribes inside the political ring is the only basis for a sustainable future. That requires leadership from the Afghan government, but also an internationally sponsored drive for the countries in the region to support stability in Afghanistan in a structured and serious way.

Muslim populations around the world look to the West to bring justice to the Palestinians. They are right to do so. Most would accept security and recognition for Israel as the price. That is essential too. President Obama’s efforts deserve united international support.

U.S. efforts would be augmented by further international support for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building plan. There also should be closer engagement between the quartet (the U.N., the E.U., the U.S. and Russia) and the so-called Arab quartet of countries — otherwise we will lose hope for pan-Arab recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state.

Finally, we need to cooperate on the slow-burning fuse of the Iranian nuclear program. This is a threat to all of us.

In Cairo in June 2009, President Obama listed historical forces that had created tension where there should have been cooperation — colonialism, the cold war, the sweeping changes brought by modernity and globalization — and led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Hopes were high in June 2009. But the president made clear in his speech that no one should expect fast progress. Simply to list the issues shows the scale of the challenges. But that is reason to get on with it, not to abandon the effort.

David Miliband, a former foreign secretary of Britain.