Speakers at a daylong Washington conference on Islam and democracy broadly agreed with Obama administration representatives that the president’s June 2009 speech in Cairo offered a historic opening to Muslim communities, but virtually all of them said that action is still needed in policy areas they consider critical.
Most cited foreign policy matters as the key divisive issues, calling for swift U.S. disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and, most consistently of all, for increased pressure leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will relieve what several called the suffering of the Palestinians.
They made their points April 28 at the 11th annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based group that describes itself as “dedicated to the study and promotion of Islamic and democratic reforms in the Muslim world.”
CSID President Radwan Masmoudi foreshadowed the tone taken by many speakers in his opening remarks at the conference, titled U.S. Relations with the Muslim World: One Year After Cairo. The “hope and excitement in the Islamic world” that greeted Obama’s speech “began to turn into disappointment as people realized that turning promises into reality is not always easy or possible,” Masmoudi said.
Chloe Berwind-Dart Speaking at CSID Conference
While Masmoudi did not offer specifics, political pollster Steven Kull reported that while Muslims have a better opinion of the United States since Obama became president, “there still is quite a lot of anger” toward the country and its policies, notably on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The United States needs to diffuse [soften] the image that it is coercively dominating the Muslim world” and must “trust the Muslim people with democracy,” Kull said.
Speakers based in Muslim-majority countries both in and outside the Middle East repeatedly voiced the same points. Chloe Berwind-Dart, director-general of the Nigerian development group the Cherish Foundation, said Nigerians she interviewed found the Cairo speech to be “aspirational, in no way an action plan,” and saw “a perceived gap between the ideals of the United States and the way it actually acts in the world.” Israel-Palestine will “continue to be a huge point of tension until a two-state solution with self-determination for everyone involved” is achieved, she said.