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New Report Says U.S. Policy Can Discourage Islamic Extremism

  • Heather Maher

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

WASHINGTON -- In a little over one month, Americans will elect a new president who, among other things, will be responsible for keeping U.S. citizens safe from terrorist attacks.

According to a new report by a diverse group of distinguished U.S. leaders, the best way he can do that is to increase the United States' diplomatic engagement with the Muslim world, even with countries that are declared enemies, like Iran.

Called, "Changing Course: A New Direction For U.S. Relations With The Muslim World," the report was released on September 24 in Washington by the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement.

One of its key findings is that, "despite tensions, the vast majority of Americans and Muslims around the world want peace, amicable relations, good governance, prosperity, and respect. Policies and actions -- not a clash of civilizations --are at the root of our divisions."

The group is made up of 34 prominent Americans who work in the fields of foreign policy, national security, politics, business, religion, education, psychology, and conflict resolution. One-third of its members are Muslims; two are former members of Congress. One member, Madeleine Albright, is a former U.S. secretary of state, and another, Richard Armitage, is a former top official in President George W. Bush's White House.

How to Reduce Tensions

With the goal of developing a new strategy to make the United States and the world safer, the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project looked at the question of how to reduce tensions between the United States and Muslim countries and communities around the world. It used a process of dialogue with hundreds of U.S. and Muslim leaders and research on the views of millions of citizens in the United States and in Muslim countries.

The starting premise was that improving U.S. relations with Muslim countries and communities is critical for U.S. and international security.

The bipartisan group says its "consensual" conclusion is that it is possible to meet both U.S. interests and the interests of the vast majority of Muslims around the world by addressing the main sources of tension in new ways.
Along the way, it discovered that Bush's "war on terror" has been an inadequate and sometimes damaging approach to improving security because it has not dealt effectively with the causes of extremism.

In fact, the report says that while the past several years have shown that military force is sometimes necessary, such force has also damaged the ability of the United States to work with other nations on counterterrorism activities and has not been adequate to defeat extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, or prevent attacks elsewhere.

For example, the group found that in many Muslim majority countries and Muslim minority communities, recruitment efforts by Islamist extremist groups is helped when there is political oppression, frustration with poor governance, and a lack of educational and job opportunities.

'Consensual' Conclusion

The bipartisan group says its "consensual" conclusion is that it is possible to meet both U.S. interests and the interests of the vast majority of Muslims around the world by addressing the main sources of tension in new ways.

Those ways include urging the U.S. government and private sector to work with their Muslim counterparts on four goals: resolving conflicts through diplomacy; improving governance in Muslim countries; promoting broad-based economic development in Muslim countries and regions; and building mutual respect and understanding.

There are detailed suggestions in the report about how to accomplish those goals, including a strategy for diplomatic engagement with Iran that "goes well beyond the "preconditions/no preconditions' debate," and a discussion of the Iraq "timetable" debate that focuses on the interests and principles the group thinks should drive U.S. decisions on future military and diplomatic involvement.

The report was purposefully released just before the first debate between the two U.S. presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. The two men had been scheduled to meet on September 26 for their first nationally televised debate, but McCain has requested that the debate be postponed to allow time for lawmakers to address the U.S. financial crisis. Obama said he believes the debate should go on, since Americans need to hear the views of the candidates "now more than ever."


Key Recommendations

Both candidates have been sent copies of the report, as have key members of Congress.

In it, McCain and Obama will see several recommendations for action their administrations might take, beginning with the inaugural address on January 20, 2009. In that speech, the group says the new U.S. president should "speak to the critical importance of improving U.S.-Muslim relations."

The report also recommends that the new U.S. president:

-- Launch a major effort within his first 90 days in office to resolve regional conflicts in the Middle East, with priority on engaging Iran and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

-- Hold a summit of business and government leaders to come up with job creation strategies in the Middle East.

-- Create and fund a global initiative for teaching, learning, and exchange among citizens in the United States and in Muslim countries.

The project was convened by two nonprofit organizations with expertise in building consensus on complex public issues: Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute.

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