Muslim world cautious toward U.S. olive branch 2009-12-31 18:43:31   Print

    ISTANBUL, Dec. 31 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama extended an olive branch to the Muslim world by promising at the beginning of 2009 to overhaul strained relations between his country and the Islamic countries.

    Obama laid out a new blueprint in his two landmark speeches -- one in Ankara in April and the other in Cairo in June -- with a desire to move beyond terrorism and security to focus on issues of mutual respect and mutual interest with the world's 1.57 billion Muslims.

    However, the Muslim world has been more cautious and prudent toward Obama's olive branch since the new American president only voiced flattered feelings but showed no concrete actions in his ambitious reconciliation move in the past year.

    Local political observers said that Obama's remarks were designed to reset relations after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the occupation in Iraq. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were seen by many Muslims as an assault on their faith. Many Muslims around the world still perceive America's eight-year-old War on Terror as a veiled assault on Islam.

    Although his predecessor George W. Bush fuelled a wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, the sitting U.S. president has said he would not apologize for the Bush administration's policies.

    Ilter Turan, a political scientist at the Bilgi University in Istanbul, said: "Six months after Obama's speech in Cairo, the relations between the U.S. and the Muslim countries have not experienced any significant difference. There are some hopeful developments, but the core issues still await solution."

    The United States has not yet withdrawn its troops from Iraq, but Obama is elevating U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to about 100,000 troops, by sending in 30,000 more. The U.S. administration has not yet abandoned its Middle East policy biased toward Israel. The Guantanamo Bay prison still remains in operation. The United States still threats to strike the nuclear facilities in Iran.

    The issues that Muslims care about are very obvious. First is the Arab-Israeli issue. Second, the wars that the U.S. is conducting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The third is the presence of American forces in the region.

    While calling Obama's tough task with Muslim nations "a long-term plan," Turan said the U.S. president has spent most of his energy and resources to cope with the global financial crisis and internal issues, such as the proposed health care overhaul, since he took office.

    "Therefore, the Obama administration has failed to create a comprehensive foreign policy agenda so far. For the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the most important issue as the dispute goes to the heart of Muslim anger toward the West. Until now, he did not take solid steps to quell the fury," he said.

    Local analysts said that Obama's Middle East moves should be viewed in the context of his intent to dismantle his predecessor Bush's policies that he thinks is bad for the United States and bad for the region.

    He signed executive orders to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months, to close Guantanamo Bay prison and suspend prosecution and order a review of the detainees cases, case by case, to end and ban the use of torture, including in facilities under the control or supervision or presence of U.S. personal, and to end the secretive Rendition Program. Those policies were the hallmarks of former president Bush's war on terror.

    Obama addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pointedly in his address. He called on Israelis and Palestinians to revive stalled peace talks, demanding Israel to halt settlements construction in the occupied territories and Palestinians to renounce violence.

    Nevertheless, no headway has been made to renew stalled peace talks as the two sides continue to blame each other.

    Inal Batu, a former lawmaker and a former Turkish ambassador, agreed with Turan and went further by drawing a more pessimistic picture.

    "The Israeli siege against the Palestinians is ongoing. No progress has been achieved on the Iranian nuclear dispute. And the Obama administration is escalating the war in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the newly-announced U.S. troop surge plans.

    Despite the U.S. president's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Batu said the situation in the war-torn country is worsening, citing that the conflict is spilling over to neighboring Pakistan.

    Rumors over a possible military coup in Pakistan are "getting serious," he said, adding that, "The tainted re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also complicated Obama's job. The U.S. president still could not see the light at the end of the tunnel."

    The United States has 115,000 soldiers in Iraq, but that figure will drop to 50,000 next year as all of its combat troops are set to pull out before a complete withdrawal by the end of 2011.

    Describing the pullout plans from Iraq as a "positive step," Ilhan Uzgel, a lecturer at the Ankara University's political sciences faculty, said the Afghan surge plans would be a move leading to the opposite direction.

    "Obama has abandoned the Bush administration's foreign policies. But his overture to the Muslim world remains a campaign slogan. We have not witnessed a solid development on better ties between the U.S. and the Muslim world," he said.

    On Washington's relations with Turkey, Turan said the country must be assessed separately from the Middle East and also from the whole Muslim world. "Having its economic and trade interests in its mind, Turkey is trying to develop deeper relations with its neighbors. So sometimes Turkey's decisions will irritate Washington. But Washington has recently learnt how to deal with it."

    In similar viewpoints with Turan, Batu said Turkish-U.S. relations should be addressed with a different understanding.

    "As a member of NATO, Turkey is a key ally of the United Statesand has a strategic partnership with Washington. It is a mistake to put Turkey in the same position with Middle East countries," he said, adding that the disappointment of the Turkish people over U.S. foreign policy still resonates.

    However, Turkey keeps distance with the United States by pursing an independent foreign policy.

    During the Iraq war, Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to attack Iraq from Turkey, which was perceived as an act of hostility in the country. It cancelled planned joint military exercise with NATO members including the United States and Israel in October. It refused U.S. calls to send more troops to Afghanistan in December.

    Meantime, Turkey is making its efforts to enhance its relations with other Muslim neighbors by launching high-level visits and exchanges with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and other countries. Turkey openly supports Iran's peaceful nuclear program while strongly condemning Israeli offensive in Gaza.

    Syria is an important Muslim country, but its relations with the United States ranged between grudging mutual accommodation and outright mutual hostility. Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    Issues of U.S. concern include what it termed the Syrian government's failure to prevent Syria from becoming a major transit point for foreign fighters entering Iraq, its refusal to deport from Syria former Saddam Hussein regime elements who are supporting the insurgency in Iraq, its ongoing interference in Lebanese affairs, its protection of the leadership of Palestinian militant groups in Damascus, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

    Since President Obama assumed office, the United States has dispatched some official delegations to Syria in a bid to improve its relations with Damascus. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told media in November that the Syrian-U.S. relations improved "very limited" and that the two sides remain at the level of dialogue.

    The western countries led by the United States alleged that Iran has a program to develop nuclear weapons, whereas Iran denies such allegations and vows to safeguard its legitimate rights in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

    Bush described Iran, along with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, as "axis of evil," warning that the proliferation of long-range missiles developed by these countries was of great danger to the U.S. and that it constituted terrorism.

    Different from his predecessor, Obama has said he is ready to deal directly with Iran, something his predecessor largely rejected, saying "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities."

    As a response, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in November that the Islamic Republic would not be deceived into reconciliation with its arch foe and that the United States was a "really arrogant power."

    Khamenei has frequently accused the United States of trying to overthrow the clerical establishment. He again ruled out a resumption of ties until Washington "abandons its arrogant behavior" towards Iran.

    In Iraq, occupied by the American troops, the situation in Baghdad and other cities has not improved much if not worsening. The anti-American sentiment prevails over the country with Muslims urging Obama to keep his words of withdrawing troops from Iraq as early as possible.

    Observers here said the relationship between the Islamic world and the United States in the past eight years has been based on mutual suspicion and mutual disrespect, adding that it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust and hostility.

    The United States should not only show its sincerity but also take concrete actions to win trust and respect from the Muslim world and forge a new relation from confrontation to rapprochement, and from mistrust to mutual respect, they said.

    There are high hopes among many Muslims around the world that the Obama administration will match its rhetoric about closer ties with the Muslim world with concrete actions, especially in pursuing peace in the Middle East. 

Special report: Yearender 2009

Editor: Lin Zhi
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