Charles Dharapak/AP

Will the US-Islamic World Forum Create a New Way Forward?

February 13, 2009 01:06 PM
by Shannon Firth
President Barack Obama offered Muslim leaders an olive branch; will they accept it?

Unclenched Fists and Minds Meet in Doha

Starting this weekend, a powerful collection of politicians, academics, journalists and thinkers will attend a series of workshops in Qatar, seeking to improve relations between the Muslim world and the United States. The U.S.-Islamic World Forum, a three-day summit, will take place in Doha, Qatar’s capital. The theme of the forum is “Common Challenges,” and its goal is to bring about positive change and meaningful partnerships through dialogue.

For more information on U.S.-Muslim Relations, please visit Understanding U.S.-Muslim Relations: History and Perspective.

H.E. Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Rumeihi, who leads the conference’s standing committee, says that discussions will concentrate on human development, social changes, security issues, and the global economic crisis.

Relations between the Muslim and Western worlds is a topic getting a great deal of attention worldwide. A conference for The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow, held last month in Doha, engaged more than 300 Muslims from 76 different countries in a discussion on the topic. The group formalized its recommendations in “An Open Letter to the World Leaders of Today from the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow.”

Participant Haroon Moghul summarized the atmosphere of that meeting: “There was a feeling that the relationship between the Muslim world and the U.S. is perhaps the most important relationship.” Moghul added that with U.S. President Barack Obama now in office, he sees real potential for change.

Members of the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project, a group comprised of religious, business, military, foreign policy and academic leaders, recently made recommendations for bipartisan measures concerning  U.S. foreign policy in a document titled, “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.”

In a recorded interview, Dalia Magahed, a member of the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project and director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, told NPR’s Fred Anderle that she felt President Obama’s inaugural address was consistent with recommendations of the center’s own report. Magahed said, “It’s time to look at Muslims around the world as partners in solving the world’s problems."

Qwidget is loading...

Background: Obama to Muslim nations: “Americans are not your enemy”

Obama conducted his first postinauguration TV interview with Arabic TV Network Al-Arabiya. His core message: “Americans are not your enemy.” Although the President’s tone was mostly positive, he criticized Iran’s harsh rhetoric about Israel and its defense of terrorist nations. He told Al-Arabiya he hopes to return to the kind of partnership America had with the Muslim world two and three decades ago.

Responding to the President’s interview, Hatem al-Kurdi, 35, a Gaza City engineer, told The Associated Press, “I can’t be optimistic until I see something tangible. Anyone can say nice words, but you have to follow with actions.”

Related Topic: Qatar as a center for mediation; creative diplomacy meets roadblocks

According to the Khaleej Times, “Nearly every high-stakes question in the Middle East these days somehow draws in Qatar.”

Nadim Shehadi, a Mideast affairs specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London told the Associated Press, “It looks a bit like a cold war in the Middle East now. There’s the side firmly with the United States and (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas, and the others backing Hamas and, by extension, seen as moving toward Iran.”

Qatar has also played a role in African politics. Al Jazeera reported that Doha is currently hosting peace talks between the Khartoum government and the rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem).

Vaughan Turekian, director of the new Center for Science Diplomacy, believes that scientific exchanges may help improve diplomatic relations between Iran and the West.  “Science diplomacy” is not a new idea. In 1961, John F. Kennedy spearheaded a science and technology program between Japanese and American researchers that Turkian believes led to a shared Nobel Prize in Physics last year. During the Cold War, when relations between the Soviet Union and America had frozen, civilian scientific exchange kept at least one line of communication open.

Not everyone supports the idea of science diplomacy, however. Glenn Schweitzer, director of the National Academies’ Office for Central Europe and Eurasia, was detained by Iranian security during his last visit to the country.

Schweitzer’s research focused on areas such as cancer trends, biomedical ethics, and highway accidents, but the Iranian government is still deeply suspicious of a “velvet revolution.” There is a history of cultural, educational and scientific exchanges being part of an official policy of regime change,” said Iranian-American scholar Shiva Balaghi.

Schweitzer does his best to separate science and diplomacy: “We weren’t trying to use science for diplomatic advantage. We were trying to use science to benefit the global community.”

Diplomacy through sports has been tried as well. In early February, the U.S. Department of State sent a team of eight female badminton players to Iran as part of a goodwill program designed to improve relations between the two countries. The players were scheduled to enter Iran on Wednesday, but Iranian officials denied their visas.

“It’s not a good sign,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters. “You know, as the secretary and others have said, when the Iranians unclench that fist, there will be a hand waiting to greet them.”

Opinion & Analysis: Iran’s golden opportunity

Trudy Rubin, in her editorial for the Anniston Star, touched on both Iran’s denial of visas to the U.S. women’s badminton team and President Obama’s willingness to meet with Iranian leaders without any stipulation. Rubin quoted Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who said, “It is a moment of truth for Iran. For the last eight years it was possible to paint the United States as the aggressor. With Obama it will be much more difficult.”

Reference: Open Letter to the World Leaders of Today from the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow

In their letter, The Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow asked both Muslim and non-Muslim world leaders to support human rights policies, to encourage participation from youth in government and civil society, to protect peaceful ideals, and to engage in respectful dialogue as a means of settling deep-rooted conflicts. Read the full letter.

The “Velvet Revolution” refers to the period between Nov. 17 and Dec. 29, 1989 when Czechoslovakia’s communist government was defeated in a bloodless coup.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines