President Obama and his administration are fully committed to pursuing “a deep and positive dialogue with Muslims around the world based on mutual respect and in support of our mutual interests,” according to a key State Department official.
The magnitude of the challenges faced makes it vital to go beyond interactions between governments to “reach out and develop partnerships with all elements of civil society,” said acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Madelyn Spirnak.
Public diplomacy, Spirnak said, “lies at the heart of America’s smart power,” and requires listening and not simply lecturing others.
“We … will not always agree,” she said, “but we are prepared to listen to and talk with partners with whom we disagree in order to understand each other better and advance mutual interests.”
Spirnak, who oversees the department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, said the United States has made a concerted effort to reach out to Muslim youth, particularly those vulnerable to extremism, “through English language training programs, high school and undergraduate exchanges, and sports programs.” Such programs, she said, “target youth at risk and provide an alternative vision of hope and opportunity.”
Spirnak spoke May 5 at the 10th annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group that describes itself as “dedicated to studying Islamic and democratic political thought and merging them into a modern Islamic democratic discourse.”
Her talk followed a daylong series of panel discussions and speeches by academics and officials of nonprofit groups in the United States and abroad, mostly from a Muslim perspective, on the theme “How to improve relations with the Muslim world.”
American Muslims play important role in shaping dialogue
Spirnak said the U.S. government welcomes dialogue with Muslim-American communities, which she said “play a constructive and important role in improving the public policy of our country.” She told her heavily Muslim-American audience, “Muslim Americans are not outsiders looking in; you are a part of the fabric of this country and have been for generations.”
“The United States is part of the Muslim world,” said Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of two Muslims serving in Congress. Ellison said 6 million Muslims live in the United States and are “involved in every aspect of American life.” They include at least 17 elected officials from across the country, he said.
“There is no strict separation between the United States and the Muslim world. You and I and many of us in this room are evidence of that fact,” Ellison said. “People who want to drive a wedge and create this sharp division want us to think of the United States as other than the Muslim world.”
Building bridges is important “because we live in a world that is so very interconnected,” Ellison said. “As Americans of whatever faith, we have to seek the new relationship, the new interaction.”
But bridge-building needs to be two-way, he said. “There’s nothing in Islam that teaches people that they should dislike the United States.”
Ellison urged his audience to oppose human rights abuses in Muslim countries, just as elsewhere. “Don’t let Muslim-majority countries off the hook, simply because we share their faith,” he said.
Ellison cited as an example his own protest April 27 outside the Sudanese Embassy over that nation’s actions in Darfur. He was among five members of Congress and three other activists who submitted to arrest on civil disobedience charges for crossing police lines in an effort to draw public attention to Darfur.
At a conference closing ceremony, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy Executive Director Radwan Masmoudi presented the group’s Muslim Democrat of the Year award to Ahmed Shaheed, foreign minister of the Maldives — the first sitting government official to receive the award in its 10-year history.
The award recognizes Shaheed for his “role in building democracy and preserving it in the face of hardship, for promoting tolerance and harmony, and for opening a window into a century of reason, freedom, human rights and democracy in the Maldives and South Asia.”