The Obama Administration and the Muslim World / Gordon L.Bowen

Meria Journal,March 2011
Prominent U.S. officials have claimed that only dwindling numbers of isolated extremists support terrorists engaged in violent attacks against Americans. Survey research on the attitudes of Muslim publics reveals a different picture, one that undermines this interpretation. Evidence from key Arab states and some other important Muslim states (Pakistan, Nigeria) is reviewed. Markedly hostile views toward the security interests of the United States and its allies are shown to exist, despite efforts of the Obama administration. Since anti-U.S. terrorism retains the support of significant minorities, recruitment of much smaller numbers of actual terrorists should be expected to continue.


In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the national security of the United States and its allies continues to be threatened by mass casualty terrorism arising from non-state actors, militants inspired by their particularly extreme reading of the tenets of Islam. Recruitment to this cause is a global phenomenon not localized to the several venues in which U.S. armed forces currently are engaged in combat operations. Thus, improving cooperation with U.S. objectives has become a high priority in relations with Muslims in general, as well as with Muslim populations in key foreign states. How effective have recent steps taken by the United States been?

Early in the Barack Obama administration (2009- ) numerous well-publicized efforts were undertaken to help reshape Muslim perceptions of the United States and its policies. This was, and is, an important component in the U.S. strategy to reduce the threat posed by al-Qa’ida, its affiliated terrorist organizations, and those unaffiliated sympathizers who undertake violent actions. President Obama’s new approach had multiple audiences: governments of Muslim states, attitudes of Muslims publics, even the regard with which U.S. foreign policies are held by interested third parties, such as European governments and publics.

This paper attempts to measure the dividends associated with these efforts chiefly by reporting and analyzing one key element: trends in Muslim opinions as measured through survey research. It utilizes public opinion polls conducted during the Obama Presidency, 2009-2011, including surveys done by the Pew Research Center, by Zogby International for the Brookings Institution, by GlobeScan for the British Broadcast Corporation, and by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (hereafter: PIPA) of the University of Maryland.

The first component in the Obama communications strategy was to alter the diction with which American officials spoke of Muslim terrorists so to make clear that the United States was not at war with Islam or most Muslims. Top counterterrorism officials consciously deleted terms connoting a religious connection to the enemy from their vocabulary: out went jihad, jihadist, and other terms derived from the extremists’ narrative, and in their place came new jargon: "the cancer of violent extremism." Talk of a “global war” stopped, and John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor, publicly stated that “the President does not describe this as a 'war on terrorism'."

Though even Obama himself had described U.S. policy as a “war” with a “handful” of “Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates” in May 2009, official phrasings evolved further by September 2009. By then the goal was said to be to create an effective strategy against “al Qaeda and its extremist allies,” and the enemy had become characterized as “an exceptionally small minority of Muslims.” In December 2009, Obama’s goals were presented as more limited still: to “defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future" (emphasis added).

Throughout, the message consistently conveyed was that while the United States was engaged militarily against a “loose network of extremists,” they and their sympathizers were isolated from the Muslim mainstream, and were enemies of both Muslims and Americans. The core idea was aptly expressed by Brennan: "Why should a great and powerful nation like the United States allow its relationship with more than a billion Muslims around the world be defined by the narrow hatred and nihilistic actions of an exceptionally small minority of Muslims?"

Concurrently, policy shifts signaled new sensitivity to Muslim concerns, including the announcement of a firm timetable for withdrawal from combat in Iraq by the end of August 2010, an embrace of the “Palestinian people--Muslims and Christians--[who] have suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” and suggestions that the U.S. patience for continued war in Afghanistan was joined to a plan to begin withdrawal from there in 2011.

Thus rebranded, the new American message was delivered directly to Muslim audiences in a series of high-profile presidential events in predominantly Muslim countries, including an April 2009 town hall talk with Turkish students and a speech to parliament in Ankara (Turkey), and a major address in Cairo (Egypt). At Cairo University in June 2009, Obama publicly conveyed a conciliatory message, using deft rhetoric to emphasize mutual interests of Americans and Muslims worldwide. The threat of violence to both was characterized as involving only “a small but potent minority of Muslims… we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.” Well covered in their entirety by regional satellite television news outlets Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, these public speeches went beyond government-to-government approaches favored during the George Bush Presidency and embodied outreach to the whole of the Arab and Muslim world, a process in which the United States was heard to identify with popular causes there including the creation of a Palestinian state.

Initially, Obama was received politely, and Egyptian audiences shown on television were enthusiastic; but the wider Egyptian public seems to have had some doubts, as polls taken prior to the Cairo speech revealed. In early 2009, PIPA showed that, by a margin of more than four to one, Egyptians supported those who engaged in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In a poll taken in the weeks before and after Obama’s speech, Pew reported that about one in seven Egyptians (15 percent) expressed support for suicide bombings in defense of Islam. Another survey taken by Zogby in March-April 2009, the 2009 Arab Public Opinion Poll, showed the highly unpopular U.S. presence at war in Iraq to be the “most central” issue by which the Egyptian public then intended to judge Obama’s policy; and 42 percent of Arabs in the region overall listed resolving Iraq above all other issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict (which 26 percent listed as “most important”).

Since the Cairo speech, the Obama administration has not just talked; it has continued to reshape U.S. policies to harmonize with preferences widely held in the Muslim world. Going beyond the bully pulpit, Obama’s announced timetable for withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, a timetable heard with skepticism in the Arab world, was achieved at the end of August 2010, when the U.S. combat role in Iraq indeed was brought to an end. The Obama administration also publicly assumed positions that appear to have been designed to convey that distance had developed between the United States and Israel.

Pointedly, Obama declined to visit the Jewish state and, when his vice president did pay a visit, the occasion was turned into a media spectacle highlighting tensions in bilateral relations, ostensibly due to U.S. objection to the announcement by an Israeli local government zoning authority permitting previously uncontroversial Jewish building in the eastern part of Jerusalem to resume. Later, the White House did little to correct journalists’ interpretations that he had treated frostily Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a private White House dinner (March 23, 2010). Further, the Obama administration declined to use the U.S. veto at the United Nations to prevent...


*Dr. Gordon L. Bowen is Professor and Chairman at the Departments of Political Science and International Relations, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, Virginia USA.




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