Today's date:
Spring 2009

Is the Muslim World a Credible Partner for Obama's Outreach?

Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the parliamentary opposition in Malaysia. He is a former deputy prime minister. These remarks are adapted from his talk to the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, in February.

Kuala Lumpur—The new Obama administration has made some significant moves already to answer calls for change. A tangible end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is not yet visible, but the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy is a welcome step, as are the anticipated withdrawal from Iraq, a rethinking of the approach in Afghanistan, an admission that Guantanamo Bay is a betrayal of America's principles and clear statements against the use of torture.

Even the mention of a hadith in a speech by Obama—that as humans we ought to be guided by the universal truth that no harm should be enacted upon a person that one would not want foisted upon oneself—struck a chord in the Muslim world.

We hope that in the new administration we find a more credible partner—both in resolving the most vexing political and security issues of our time, but also in pursing an agenda for sustainable economic development.

Poverty remains a key issue across Asia, the Middle East and much of Africa and provides a meaningful context in which to pursue a common agenda. Such an agenda would bring great benefit to millions subsisting on just a few dollars a day. In the context of the global recession, there are clear avenues for cooperation to stimulate growth that could revive ailing economies, including those in the developing world, and ameliorate its global negative impact.

Muslim countries cannot be mere bystanders in this era, nor can they place all their hopes on the possibility of a sea change in American foreign policy.

No edict of the United States would change the state of affairs unless we witness real progress in ensuring that governments in the Muslim world are more responsive to the aspirations of their people and fulfill their legitimate expectations.

We need look no further than Indonesia—which in 1998 made the unprecedented peaceful transition from military authoritarianism to democracy. This happened virtually overnight and without the intervention of a single foreign soldier. No less significant is Turkey, which now stands as perhaps the most mature Muslim democracy in the world.

But these examples are too few, and in between is a sea of unfreedom, which has bred, among other things, poverty and radicalism.

If we can expect a certain rapprochement from the US, the question remains: Will the US find credible partners in the Muslim world? Does it have a credible partner in us?

The fact is that issues of governance and accountability still loom large, continuing to cast doubts upon the legitimacy of ruling elites.

In this regard, reform is no longer an option. There must be firm resolve borne out of the efforts of leaders and with the support of institutions of civil society to bring about the right changes.

The clamor for change among Muslims has not abated. Nevertheless, in the Muslim world the past notion of the US promoting democracy has been a tale of selective ambivalence, if not outright hypocrisy. We saw that in Algeria in 1991 and again more recently in Palestine. In other countries, democracy is championed insofar as elections may take place—irrespective of the conduct of those elections. These are in fact sham democracies. The underlying undemocratic characteristics are scarcely impacted—tightly controlled media with blatant bias, rigged elections, oppressive treatment of opposition parties and a judiciary under siege. This is not an academic issue. Where I come from, this is a stark reality.

Muslims must be committed to change. The question that remains is how can we proceed? First, real engagement must be inclusive. We should not start by building a wall around ourselves, setting preconditions and prejudging groups and parties. These impediments only serve to strengthen old prejudices and further sow suspicion and doubt. Fruitful engagement must proceed from the premise that no nation (including America), no region (including the Arab world) and no culture or religion (including Islam) has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity. These are indeed universal principles that we all share.