Has the New Beginning Begun?

Less than 18 months after U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University pushed his popularity among Muslim populations to new heights, views of the U.S. across these same populations have plummeted.

Polls conducted by such research firms as Gallup, the Pew Research Center and Zogby International indicate that approval ratings of the Obama administration in predominantly Muslim countries have returned to pre-Cairo levels and even – in some segments and on some issues – to the depths reached during the administration of George W. Bush.

Given Obama’s emphasis on improving the U.S.’s standing among Muslim populations abroad, these results are more than the byproduct of unpopular policies. They demonstrate the challenges the administration faces in accomplishing one of its stated policy goals – to establish a “new beginning” in relations with Muslim societies abroad – and they provide some indication as to why more progress has not been made.

A common explanation for the low ratings is that after raising expectations, the Obama administration offered no real changes from the deeply unpopular policies pursued by the Bush administration. Some of Obama’s policy pronouncements that were most enthusiastically welcomed across Muslim societies (i.e. the pledge to close the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, the line in the sand that he seemed to have drawn over halting Israeli settlement activity, and the opening of dialogue with Iran) have either stalled or have been substantially compromised in their implementation.

This view is incomplete and even misleading. The Obama administration has in fact broken with the approach of the Bush administration in multiple – and in some cases, profound – ways. In the tone and tenor of the administration’s approach to Muslim communities worldwide, in its policy goals and in its strategy to achieve those goals, the Obama administration looks very little like its predecessor.

Nevertheless, the bottom line by which the U.S. is judged is by the impact our government’s policies have on the lives of those affected by them. Notwithstanding the many ways in which President Obama has broken from his predecessor, by this litmus test, very little has improved. Indeed in some areas of U.S. policy that directly impact the lives and rights of Muslim populations and that resonate across Muslim societies globally – i.e. the situation in Palestine and, particularly, in Gaza; the heavy presence of U.S. combat forces in Muslim countries; and the U.S. support for deeply unpopular autocratic leaders – conditions have largely remained static or even deteriorated over the past two years.

Any effort to assess and analyze the views of the global Muslim population is prone to broad-brush generalizations and the projection of one’s own lens on the interests and views of nearly one-fifth of humanity. Nevertheless, it seems worth assessing the Obama administration’s efforts to address three primary feeders of anti-American sentiment: 1) The perception – based on the rhetoric of our leaders, our public discourse and our popular culture – that the United States is inherently anti-Islam; 2) Resentment of U.S. alliances with and support for autocratic regimes in predominantly Muslim countries; and 3) Anger over the U.S. role in violent conflicts.


The perception that the U.S. is anti-Islam hardened during the Bush administration after its declaration of a “global war on terror.” For many Muslims, this war was interpreted as a war against Islam, not terrorism. Driving this perception home were Bush’s ill-advised use of terms such as “crusade” to describe the conflict, the deployment of a woefully inexperienced cadre of bureaucrats to manage affairs in Iraq during the early stages of occupation, and the stories and images of humiliation, torture and murder that emanated from prisons such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Bagram. But nothing solidified the notion that the global war on terror was a pretext for broader U.S. ambitions in the Muslim world more than the invasion of Iraq itself. There was broad international support for the U.S. to take assertive action in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, once the Bush administration used the attacks as a pretext for invading a country that had nothing to do with them, the true purpose of the war on terror came under serious question and the U.S. lost a great deal of credibility among Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.

Into this credibility gap stepped President Obama in 2009, and with regard to rhetoric and tone, he could scarcely have done more than he has. Prioritizing the improvement of relations with Muslims abroad, Obama first did away with the global war on terror as a policy framework and then gave his historic speech at Cairo University, in which he declared the war in Iraq a “war of choice” (remarkable given that it was an ongoing conflict with more than 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground at the time); stated – rather astonishingly – that he “consider(ed) it part of his responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”; and placed the just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the two most critical requirements for the improvement of U.S. relations with Muslim communities worldwide (the first being countering violent extremism), with a specific stake in the ground over the illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.

These were more than symbolic acts. They signaled a substantial shift in perspective and policy from the Bush administration, which never acknowledged the error of the Iraq war, avoided until the very latest stages any serious engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and established the “global war on terror” as the defining priority in its engagement with Muslim countries globally.

Unfortunately, while President Obama has gone to great lengths to shift the tone of U.S. engagement with Muslim societies, the perception of the U.S. as anti-Islam is not something that the president or even government alone can undo. Indeed, at precisely the moment that the president took unprecedented steps to lower the rhetorical temperature in relations with Muslim populations globally, many other Americans seemed determined to do just the opposite.

Unleashed by a combination of the hard economic times and the ascendance of an African American to the highest office in the land, some of the most virulently racist and xenophobic tendencies have emerged in the U.S. over the past two years, with much of the vitriol directed at Islam and Muslims.

Amplified by media networks and by opportunistic political and religious figures in the U.S. and in Muslim countries, who latch onto the most extreme voices in one another’s societies to build up their own populist credentials, the net effect has been a growing cross-cultural polarization. Competing with the president’s speech in Cairo are a fringe pastor’s threats to burn the Qur’an, the heated opposition to a non-existent movement to impose Shari’a law in the U.S. led with faux-bravery by Newt Gingrich and other political opportunists, and the burgeoning opposition to the construction of mosques across the U.S.

Regarding this first facet of anti-American sentiment – the perception that the U.S. is anti-Islam – President Obama gets high marks having done a great deal to shift the tone and rhetoric of the U.S. stance vis-àvis Muslim societies. The ultimate effect is severely undercut however, by the rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S. and the mutually reinforcing cycle of extreme rhetoric and posturing by irresponsible leaders on all sides.


Regarding the second facet of anti-American sentiment – the perception that the U.S. supports autocratic rulers and in some cases even undermines democratic processes – the distinctions between the Bush and Obama administrations are at once profound and negligible.

At a deep ideological level, President Obama’s foreign policy reflects a realist approach at odds with the neoconservative idealism that dominated the Bush presidency and resulted in the “freedom agenda,” with its stated goal of spreading “liberty” across the Arab and broader Muslim world.

References to the spread of liberty and promotion of democracy have been virtually absent from Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s policy speeches, as are public condemnations of sham elections, the oppression of political opposition and other common forms of authoritarianism among several U.S. allies across the Middle East and South Asia.

In their place the administration has opted for more subtle efforts to promote more pluralistic societies working with governments and other sectors of Muslim societies. From the president’s Entrepreneurship Summit to the administration’s support for the expansion of public-private partnerships aimed at fostering a more dynamic civil society in diverse Muslim countries, the administration has sought to translate the Partnership for a New Beginning that Obama announced in Cairo into concrete action by proliferating the venues and sectors through which the administration engages Muslims abroad.

In another break from the Bush administration, President Obama has strengthened the U.S.’s participation in multilateral institutions that monitor and promote human rights – most recently evidenced by the decision to subject the U.S.’s own human rights record to review by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council so its own voice in such venues will have greater credibility.

Notwithstanding the ways in which philosophical differences have produced these distinct policies, the Bush and Obama administrations are virtually identical with regard to how and with which leaders the U.S. allies itself in the Middle East and South Asia. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has refused to engage the democratically elected Hamas leadership in Gaza despite reasserting the U.S.’s role as a third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; has worked closely with and continued to support the endemically corrupt regime in Afghanistan; and is helping to equip and support the intelligence and security services of diverse governments – including some autocratic and corrupt ones – upon which the U.S. is reliant to thwart terrorist attacks emanating from an increasingly diffuse geographical landscape.

The realist perspective is that these policy decisions reflect the unavoidable choices that must be made to counter the threat of terrorism or achieve other policy goals. And yet they undercut the administration’s goal of improving the standing of the U.S. among Muslim populations globally.

More importantly, allying with undemocratic regimes or isolating democratically elected ones in order to counter violent extremism can backfire. Political oppression and marginalization are among the primary feeders of extremism. Indeed, some Islamist parties that had previously participated in political processes are already beginning to withdraw – most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Others, such as Hamas, are facing rising opposition from much more extreme movements within their own societies.

Given these dynamics, it is important to constantly revisit and scrutinize whether such policy decisions and alliances are indeed necessary.

Regarding this second facet of anti-American sentiment – the perception of the U.S. as hampering democratic development – Obama has avoided creating a gap between words and deeds by not making grandiose statements regarding democracy promotion. Moreover, it is a welcome shift for the U.S. to re-engage in multilateral fora such as the U.N. that, while flawed, remain the best available channels through which to promote and defend such ideas as human rights and democratic pluralism. The administration’s efforts to open multiple lines of partnership and support of civil society and the private sector in Muslim countries through, for example, the president’s Entrepreneurship Summit and the public-private sector initiatives being developed through the Partners for a New Beginning initiative – while still at fairly early stages – are commendable and, if expanded and followed through, important. Such steps may provide the most effective – albeit long-term – way for an administration to encourage greater pluralism and dynamism within diverse Muslim societies abroad while simultaneously working with the political leadership as it currently exists. And yet, as long as the U.S. provides support to regimes that are deeply unpopular among their own citizens – while simultaneously refusing to engage with democratically elected leadership, such as Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon – popular suspicion and resentment of the U.S. approach to political pluralism in the region is likely to persist.


Nowhere do U.S. policies more directly affect people’s lives than where the U.S. maintains a heavy military presence (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq) or is seen to be supporting occupying forces (West Bank and Gaza). The stories and images of civilian suffering in these places – the flash points of American engagement with Muslim populations – play out daily in media outlets across the Muslim world and shape views of the U.S. among mainstream populations and on the radical fringes where these images make for powerful recruiting propaganda for extremist groups.

Reflecting this reality in his testimony to Congress in March 2010, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut testified that “years of polling suggest there will be little real progress (in Muslim views of the U.S.) until: 1) Muslims come to see the U.S. as being more fair-minded in its handling of Israeli-Palestinian situation . . .; 2) Muslims no longer view American anti-terrorism efforts as anti-Muslim; 3) No American forces are at war in Muslim countries.” From a starting point of inheriting two wars and a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration has taken some important constructive steps but has also made some mistakes from which it will be difficult to recover.


In Iraq, the administration moved quickly to withdraw combat forces, though a substantial presence of 50,000 personnel is expected to remain through the end of 2011 to train and advise Iraqi military and police forces, and engage in combat operations only where there is a threat to American forces. This transfer of authority to Iraqi leadership has been welcomed in the U.S., Iraq and abroad. If Iraq’s fragile stability can be maintained and consolidated, there is nothing more the Obama administration could have been expected to achieve.


In Afghanistan, the Obama administration inherited a war that was already 7 years old and had been largely neglected, directionless and under-resourced since the initial invasion in 2001 that drove the Taliban out of Kabul. The will of American allies to remain engaged with troops on the ground was waning and the assessment from American commanders was that the U.S. was either losing or, at best, treading water.

President Obama launched a comprehensive review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. As a result, the administration focused the U.S. mission on disrupting and degrading al-Qaida’s ability to plan and launch terrorist attacks; increasing pressure on the Taliban through military escalation (including a major escalation of drone attacks in neighboring Pakistan) while providing an escape valve of negotiations for those Taliban forces who would take it; building support among local populations by protecting and expanding services to them; and building the capacity of local security forces so they could eventually take over security and counterinsurgency efforts with limited external support.

Subsequently Obama ordered a vast increase in troop levels (from 34,000 troops when he came to office to 95,000 today), and began a diplomatic campaign to persuade NATO allies to extend and increase their commitments.

The administration’s review of this strategy is underway but assessments from a variety of sources –including status and field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, the International Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan: Exit vs. Engagement, and the report of the Afghanistan Study Group A New Way Forward – make clear that the reality on the ground will require either a much longer timeline to achieve the stated objectives or a substantial scaling back of those objectives. Violence, including NATO casualties, is at the highest level since the beginning of the war a decade ago and none of the stated objectives of the administration’s revamped policy appear close to being achieved, though it is within one year of the date the administration said it would begin to withdraw troops.

The objectives that Obama outlined, which may have been achievable in 2001 (before the diversion of resources to Iraq and the recession, and at the height of the international community’s willingness to support and work with the U.S.), simply may not be feasible any longer, at least not without a substantially longer commitment of U.S. troops. In this context, if the most basic of goals – preventing the establishment of bases for terrorist training, disrupting al-Qaida and ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not compromised – can be achieved without large-scale U.S. military presence, as the Afghanistan Study Group argues, then this may be the least bad of the available options. The longer there is a heavy and increasingly unilateral American troop presence occupying Afghanistan with drone attacks targeting violent extremists in Pakistan but inevitably killing civilians in the process, the more the war will fuel the violent extremism it is meant to defeat.


Paradoxically, it is the flash point in which the U.S. maintains no troops on the ground that most influences views of the U.S. by Muslim populations abroad. The Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna calls the Israel-Palestine issue “the primary prism through which the U.S. is judged (in the Muslim world).” This fact is reflected by Kohut’s Congressional testimony and is born out in research and opinion polls of Muslims, including a survey released in August 2010 that was conducted in six predominantly Muslim countries by the Brookings Institution in conjunction with the University of Maryland and Zogby International. When asked which U.S. policy respondents found most disappointing, 61 percent cited Palestine-Israel, 27 percent said Iraq, and no other option received more than 5 percent.

To his credit, President Obama signaled his understanding of the central importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S. relations with the Muslim world when he addressed it prominently and forcefully in his Cairo speech. And several actions taken by the administration in its first year – including calling on Israel to join the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and abstaining from defending Israel during a number of U.N. debates – signaled a shift away from the unconditional support of Israel during the eight years of the Bush administration and toward a possible reassertion of the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the administration made a critical mistake by backing down from what was presented in the Cairo speech as a line in the sand regarding continued Israeli settlement activity, which Obama described bluntly as “illegitimate.” After tense exchanges between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S. backed down, accepting only a temporary freeze in settlement construction to get the parties to the negotiating table. This set a precedent at the earliest stage of the administration’s engagement in the conflict that the U.S. would not stand firm in pressuring Israel to make concessions, even when the president’s credibility is on the line.

This undermined the confidence of Palestinians and many in the Arab and Muslim world that the U.S. would serve as an effective broker while it encouraged the Netanyahu administration to wait out American demands until the U.S. capitulated. This problem was then compounded by the Obama administration’s unprecedented offer to provide Israel with 20 to 35 fighter jets worth $3 billion in exchange for a mere 90-day extension on the moratorium on settlement activity. The moratorium was not to cover settlements in East Jerusalem and came with an assurance that the U.S. would not ask Israel to extend the moratorium after the 90 days. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Dan Kurtzer and others have argued, the offer represented a major and troubling break with precedent.

American military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel has been practically unconditional since 1992, when President George H.W. Bush threatened to veto loan guarantees for Israel in support of then-Secretary of State James Baker’s efforts to restart peace negotiations. However, the deal offered by the Obama administration went a step further – making it appear as if Israel’s abidance by international law is conditional on American inducements. In the eyes of many in the Muslim world, it made it appear as though Israel was putting pressure on the U.S. rather than the other way around and reduced confidence in the capacity of the Obama administration to serve as an effective broker.

In the end, even after this unprecedented offer was made, the administration could not gain sufficient assurances from the Netanyahu administration to advance the peace process and the U.S. demand for an extension of the moratorium on settlements was dropped.

While the efforts to entice the parties back to the negotiating table has faltered, the situation in Gaza – including Israeli airstrikes, restrictions on Palestinian access to their farmland, regular power outages of as long as 12 hours, and other daily indignities – continues to play out on media outlets across the Muslim world, stoking resentment over a prolonged injustice to which the U.S. is perceived to be complicit.

Unless the Obama administration is willing to place and maintain pressure on the Netanyahu administration to make concessions as necessary and to engage with the democratically elected leadership in Gaza as part of the process, it is hard to imagine substantial progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without that progress, a lasting improvement in the U.S. standing in the Muslim world – notwithstanding the important and substantive efforts the administration has made on several other important fronts – will remain elusive.

A year and a half removed from President Obama’s call for a new beginning in U.S. relations with the Muslim world, he has accomplished more than is often acknowledged. He has changed the U.S. policy orientation away from a strictly security-based approach, shifting the tone and multiplying the levels and means of engagement with Muslim societies, all as part of an effort to institute a partnership model of engagement rather than an agenda-imposing approach. He has guarded against the accusation of hypocrisy by ratcheting down rhetoric regarding, for instance, the spread of freedom, and by making the U.S. accountable again within the multilateral institutions where other nations are expected to be. He has also withdrawn combat troops from Iraq while re-engaging the U.S. in the vital effort to try to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

And yet, polls reveal popular views of the U.S. in predominantly Muslim countries that are back to the low levels last seen toward the end of the Bush administration. While multiple factors have produced this result, if one had to identify a primary reason, it is this: on the issue that most profoundly shapes the views of diverse Muslim populations – the perception of the U.S. as an occupying power and as an enabler of Israeli occupation – many still do not see a likely end in sight. It is worth remembering that this is not a particularly “Muslim” phenomenon. Throughout history and across all regions and cultures, foreign occupation has bred resistance and prolonged occupation has bred violent resistance. As long as there are a substantial number of American troops engaged in combat operations in Muslim countries or the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is enabled by American economic, military and diplomatic support, it will be practically impossible to fully achieve a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslim societies abroad. §

Shamil Idriss is Chief Executive Officer of Soliya, Senior Advisor to the UN Alliance of Civilizations, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders.

From a starting point of inheriting two wars and a nonexistent Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration has taken some important constructive steps but has also made some mistakes from which it will be difficult to recover.

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