Engaging the Muslim World: Well what are we waiting for?

By Patricia DeGennaro –

I, for one, welcome Cole’s book. It talks about engaging people and understanding them for who they are not who we believe them to be. There are plenty of people that feel Americans are not the principled people we think ourselves to be mostly because our government is implementing policy in parts of the world where they don’t care to do their homework therefore the implications for the people are highly destabilizing. See Afghanistan.

At the beginning of his term, President Obama declared that he was ready to engage the world. He should be looking to people like Cole to help him understand the nuances and implications of rhetoric, postures and policies his Administration is proposing to implement. Denigrating anyone is usually counterproductive and this type of approach, which the Administration seems to be vacillating with toward Iran, will only create more apprehension on their part causing what Cole calls “American Anxiety.”

I’ve seen plenty of this “anxiety” in the Middle East and more recently in Afghanistan. America promised a better future for the region and, then instead of working diligently to work with, empower Afghans and allow change, it allowed seven years to slide by.

In Cole’s book, he outlines a bit of American history showing us an unpleasant policy making past. Too often, when US interests abroad are at risk, national considerations and concerns are ignored. In Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, most recently, Palestine (where the US and Israel unseated Hamas), leaders have literally been removed courtesy of the actions and policies of the US government.

Too often lives are to say the least disrupted. All because someone other than them needed their territory, their obedience, and their resources without their consent.

As Cole states, the Muslim perception of US policies and their repercussions in Muslim states is that most Americans do not care. I agree, they don’t. However, I would argue that if Americans truly understood how their international policy affected others they would feel differently.

Years of putting oil before food, weapons before development and myth before reality have allowed an overdramatic media and a lot of propaganda to inform American thought about Islam in a very negative way. Most misunderstand Islam and they fail to differentiate one nations identity from another. Thus, as Cole puts it, Americans have “Islam Anxiety.”

This anxiety is fueled by images of people yelling and burning flags in the chaotic streets of far away lands. Recently on a cable television station, I saw an interview with a woman who declared that all troops should leave Iraq and let them [Iraqis] fight. “That’s all they know is killing,” she said. What she said was not only sad, it , quite frankly, gave me “American Anxiety.” More importantly, it reminded me how vast the Muslim/American misunderstanding is and that engagement is not only necessary, it is essential.

Within all this anxiety, the geopolitical scope of the Muslim world will only get stronger and much to any fear monger’s dismay it will not disappear. Thus, it is up to us to learn how to live with it. This means as Cole puts it, “by “engagement,” .. not.. surrender or accommodation.” By “critique as well as dialogue, pressure as well as basic human respect.”

Although I have not been to the region as much as Cole has, I do travel there often. I spend time with Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, Pakistanis, Indians, Turks, Iraqis, Iranian, Egyptians, Afghans, Albanians and more. The only time I had anxiety was driving with an Afghan in a minivan whose tires were bald and we kept slipping off the road.

People in countries that are mainly Muslim want the same things that Christians, Jews or even atheist’s want. They want electricity, water, and food for their kids. They want education, security, healthcare, jobs and the right to travel freely – especially the women.

No one I ever spoke to was looking forward to more fighting or war, but often many were looking for the West to stop dismissing their needs as if they deserved their lot. Life is much more complicated than assuming any individual is destined to live in insecurity or poverty.

For eight years now the US has not engaged anyone let alone Muslim societies. It is time to change that now. The US has fought against understanding, tolerating or embracing little if any of what makes them, well them.

Cole argues it will not hurt to engage from the Muslim Brotherhood and I would include Hamas and Hezbollah’s political wings too. After all if we are considering talking to the Taliban, we should consider talking to any and all people. Again, that does not mean “we surrender to accommodation” or compromise one child’s future.

Alternatively, what it does mean is that we are working for a different type of future than we have now – leaving no one behind. The whole world, not just a part, is facing resource shortages, climate change, and oodles of conflict. Leaving discrimination behind and bringing people in – not keeping them out – gives them reason to be part of the solution instead of a larger global terrorist problem.

In Coles conclusion, he quotes an Iraqi tribal leader who says, “There is good and bad in America.” Well, there is good and bad in the Muslim world as well. However, if we do not allow ourselves to see the good and allow them to be part of it, we are “doomed,” in the words of another influential author, Sun Tzu, “to be imperiled in battle.”

That is not a future I believe any of us want.