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American-Muslim relations can improve

US policy has fed Muslim and Arab mistrust and antipathy of America, but the US has continued to provide a haven for Muslims fleeing persecution, conflict and war.
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Placards are displayed during a demonstration against the Syrian president Bashar al Assad in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on Mar. 10, 2012. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — The Assad regime’s violent crackdown on the Syrian opposition has led to a surprising development: The United States and segments of the Islamic world are now working together in the United Nations Security Council to authorize humanitarian intervention.

Even in the midst of the ongoing crisis, meanwhile, some Muslim groups have rejected this effort because of their wholesale disapproval of any American involvement. This stance is based on a skewed characterization of American relations with the Islamic world, built largely on post 9/11 narratives. The current situation, however, offers a new platform for cooperation that should be embraced, not rejected.

First of all, there is no denying that many aspects of US policy have fed Muslim and Arab mistrust and hatred of America. US involvement in the Middle East has been driven by support of dictatorial regimes or interventions aimed at advancing its strategic position and securing oil supplies. Furthermore, since the birth of the State of Israel, the United States has committed itself to the Zionist ideal, often over the plight of displaced Palestinians; the price has been the loss of support among Muslims across the world. For much of the American public, meanwhile, the “war on terror” has been, in fact, a war on Islam.

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America’s complex relations with Muslims, however, cannot be reduced to only these negative instances. There also are many examples of US-Muslim collaboration and, today, evolving interests are drawing the two closer together. For every example of American imperialism, there is a counter example of a US ”anti-colonial” policy. For example, it was the US pressure that compelled Britain and France to end their occupation of the Suez in 1956. US support of the mujahideen helped end Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s. More recently, American-led intervention ended the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Various US interventions in the interest of religious freedom have been helped Muslim minorities, as in the case of Chinese Muslims. The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2010 criticized the actions of Chinese authorities, ranged from forceful removal of Muslim women’s headscarves and confiscating passports to preventing Muslims from going on Hajj and imprisoning activists and their family members. If the lot of Chinese Muslims improves in the future, no doubt they will owe much to American pressure on China.

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Of the 7 million American Muslims, two out of three are foreign-born. Some came to the US as refugees. These groups include well-known cases from Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia, as well as lesser-known groups such as the Cham Muslims from Cambodia and Meshket Turks (Ahiskalilar) from Central Asia. True to its historical legacy, the United States has continued to provide a haven for Muslims fleeing persecution, conflict and war.

American-Muslim collaboration during the Arab Spring has further strengthened this relationship. While Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation ignited large-scale protests in Tunisia, dispatches between American diplomats and autocratic leaders of the Middle East, revealed by WikiLeaks, described extensive palace corruption, providing additional fuel to the protests.

In Egypt, the initial American reluctance to call for the ouster of long-standing ally Hosni Mubarak gave way to US President Barack Obama’s cautious support for protesters and stern warnings against the use of violence. Taking this approach to support the Arab Spring one step further, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged that the United States would work with Al-Nahda in Tunisia “because America respects the right of the Tunisian people to choose their own leaders.” Collaboration between the Arab League and the US on Libya offers a final example in which the NATO-led intervention saw US forces fighting alongside those of several Arab countries.

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Overall, the Obama Administration has shown balanced leadership throughout the past year’s events. The administration’s overly cautious attitude signaled a shift from the forceful intervention of the Bush era to genuine dialogue and calculated engagement with a range of groups in the region, including Islamists.

This fresh American approach appears to be well received by Muslims. As the Brookings 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll indicated, favorable views of the United States in the region stand at 26 percent. While still low, this is a significant increase from 10 percent in 2010. Moreover, 24 percent of those polled believed the US played a constructive role in the Arab Spring, placing it behind only Turkey and France.

American involvement in Muslim affairs in general — and during the Arab Spring, in particular — clearly cannot be characterized as simply having a malevolent intent. This is not to say that the climate of relations between Muslims and America has reached optimal warmth, nor that a Libya-like intervention in Syria conducted by Muslim states and America would be sure to succeed. But it is time to reject the shortsighted reactionary position that intervention is suspicious solely because the US supports it. Ending bloodshed should be the priority — not preventing American involvement at any cost.

Turan Kayaoglu is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and a Visiting Professor at Qatar University. He currently holds the position of Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

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