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One Year After Cairo
in 10-06-03

U.S.-Relations with the Muslim World


Satoshi Ikeuchi
Satoshi Ikeuchi in bw

Satoshi Ikeuchi [paper], Associate Professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo and a visiting fellow at Clare Hall College at the University of Cambridge, was the second speaker of this second parallel session. His talk focused on the interesting relationship between positions on human rights in Islamic contexts with international declarations on human rights. Dr. Ikeuchi informed the audience that, in fact, there have been significant attempts to "create Islamic laws in line with universal human rights laws." While the differences between the letter of these laws are miniscule, the perceptions of them, particularly in the United States, leave lasting marks on their real-world applicability. Dr. Ikeuchi turned to an assessment of President Obama's efforts to assuage negative perceptions of "the other" in both the "West" and in the "Muslim World," and the importance of such efforts by an American president, particularly in contrast to past U.S. administrations.

Oliver Wilcox and Chris Carneal
Oliver Wilcox and Chris Carneal in bw

Taking up the third slot as presenters in this second parallel session was the research team of Oliver Wilcox, Senior Development Advisor at the Middle East Bureau, and Chris Carneal, Education Development Specialist in the Asia and Middle East Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). They presented findings and identified areas for further work on "Arab Youth Development in U.S.-Muslim Engagement." Drawing on current research and extensive field experience, Wilcox and Carneal find that key youth challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions reside not only in education and employment but in other areas as well: education systems do not prepare youth for existing labor markets; jobs are increasingly limited for Arab university graduates; and opportunities for civic and political engagement are constricted. The Obama administration's emphasis on expanding partnerships, they observe, has the potential to build linkages between U.S. and MENA youth-serving organizations. At the same time, greater strategic coordination in youth initiatives and programs could help in maximizing the impact of such enagement.

Corinna Mullin-Lery
Corinna Mullin-Lery

The last speaker on this parallel session was Corinna Mullin-Lery, an Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC) Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Dr. Mullin-Lery's talk focused on the topic of "The Impact of the Modern Rationalist Approach on the U.S. Discourse on Political Islam." In the paper, Dr. Mullin-Lery examined the legacy of the discourse on political Islam in the context of George W. Bush's "war on terror", reflecting on the role it has performed in constructing and affirming the United States' self-identity as a beacon of "democracy," "progress" and "modernity" in contradistinction to an Islamist "other". She also considered whether or not a real paradigm shift has occurred regarding the way in which Islamist movements are viewed and engaged by the Obama administration. Dr. Mullin-Lery then went on to discuss one of the principal ways in which the "modern rationalist" paradigm impacts analyses of political Islam, and the foreign policies they spawn, namely through the "ideologization of terror" approach, which views political Islam through "the lens of the 'fundamentalist threat'. Dr. Mullin-Lery concluded her paper by arguing that Obama's agenda thus far, though seeking to eschew some of the more polarized language and Manichean worldview associated with the Bush administration, as best evidenced in his Cairo speech, is still tarred by the logic, and confined by the parameters, of the "war on terror" discourse.

Tariq Ramadan
Tariq Ramadan in bw

After the end of the first two parallel sessions came the time for the keynote speakers, Dr. Tariq Ramadan and Dr. Reza Aslan, at the keynote luncheon. For the addresses of  these two much anticipated and renowned scholars, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota's fifth district introduced the two speakers by opening the conversation on the topic of "Prospects for Improved Relations and Understanding Between the U.S. and the Muslim World." Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies and Theology at Oxford University and President of the think-tank European Muslim Network (EMN), was the first of the two speakers to make his address. Dr. Ramadan began by expressing his reactions to the famous Cairo speech delivered by the President in June, 2009, as having noted the speech as being "very profound and well structured." President Obama, Dr. Ramadan said, duly recognized the importance of words and terms, as he rightly excluded terms like "Muslim/Islamic World" and language resembling the 'us versus them' rhetoric of the previous Bush administration. Dr. Ramadan stressed the imperative of American Muslim engagement with the political landscape, which begins at the level of education, as he rightly pointed out. American Muslims, he stressed, need to take a constructive, critical approach to politics and leading politicians, but must also be ready for self-criticism when and where it is appropriate.

Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan in bw

Reza Aslan, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside and internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions started from an interesting position: looking back to an earlier 'Cairo speech' delivered by then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in which the language of "democracy-promotion' first surfaced. While most American Muslims regarded the speech to be a "cynical ploy" to dominate the Muslim World, Muslims around the world thought the exact opposite, and were excited about future prospects and dealings with the United States. Though the Bush rhetoric quickly evaporated amidst the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama successfully revived it, but with changed rhetoric and a clear departure from the agenda of the previous administration. While the promises made by President Obama during that speech were exciting enough, Dr. Aslan said he hesitated "to give Obama a grade because, while I like his thesis, I have yet to see the paper." Indeed, we are all watching with anxious anticipation to see Obama's plans unfold.

Mustapha Khalfi
Mustapha Khalfi in bw

A second plenary session immediately followed the keynote luncheon event. With the title of "Dialogue with Political Islamists," and chaired by Dan Brumberg of the USIP, it featured Mustapha Khalfi, Halim Rane, Salah Ali Abdulrahman, and Quinn Mecham. The first to take the floor was Mustapha Khalfi, who is the Director of the Moroccan Center for Contemporary Research and Studies and is also a member of the national council of the Justice and Development party (PJD) in Morocco. Khalfi's address presented an intriguing look into the political dynamics playing out in Morocco. He argued that, despite the fears of the United States and many Western allies that opening political fields to all participants will give leeway to radical Islamic parties, increased "political participation does change Islamic movements and parties" for the better, as they become flexible on their platform issues in order to garner support come election season; "The democratic system works," said Khalfi, "we just need to give it a chance."

Halim Rane
Halim Rane in bw

The second speaker on this plenary panel session was Halim Rane [paper], Deputy Director of the Griffith Islamic Research Unit and a Lecturer in the National Centre of Excellence in Islamic Studies at Griffith University, Australia. With his expertise in South Asian Islamic movements and parties, Dr. Rane spoke about the difficulties faced by first generation parties in "attracting a multiplicity and diversity of constituencies" because of their outdated approaches. By embracing the new "maqasid" (higher objectives) approach to the formation of their platform issues, the new generation of Islamic parties has, by and large, joined the 'West' in advocating "principles of democracy, human rights, healthcare, economic prosperity" while remaining true to their Islamic traditions and practices. "On what grounds then," asked Dr. Rane, "can the United States dismiss these parties in its push for democracy?"

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