US-Muslim relations at stake in US election?

Islamic Center in Washington, DC, USA. (Photo: Hisham Ibrahim / Getty Images)

East Meredith, New York - Following a week of devastating economic news, the latest presidential and vice-presidential televised debates have put concerns of foreign affairs back on the campaign agenda – particularly issues of importance to Muslim-US relations. Coupled with earlier campaign spin about Barack Obama’s alleged Muslim roots, Sarah Palin’s reference to "God’s work" in Iraq, John McCain’s repetitive reference to “radical Islam" and other examples of media mania about Islam, one may have the impression that the future of American relations with the Muslim world depends on the outcome of the 2008 elections.

This is not the case.

America will be tied to the Muslim world for centuries to come. There are six million Muslims in America, and many Americans work and live in the 56 Muslim-majority countries. Tens of thousands of Muslim students study in America, and American universities in Muslim societies will continue to play a positive intercultural role.

The connections between the two worlds go beyond the diaspora, expatriate work opportunities and tourism. Washington is an ally of Pakistan in the fight against terrorism; it is allied with Turkey through NATO; it is a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict; it is active in diplomacy with the people of Cyprus, the Balkans, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Although many of America’s policies with Muslim-majority countries take the form of aid and cooperation, America is also engaged in two active wars in Muslim-majority countries and is confronting Iran aggressively on nuclear defence issues and its relations with Hizbullah and Hamas.

These many links – whether over common interest, immigration or competition – will play a long-term role in Muslim-US relations well beyond the November election.

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Of the many leading issues in this presidential race, the three matters that most directly impact America’s relationship with Muslims – both domestically and abroad –- are the future of Iraq, independence from Middle East oil and resolution of the Israel-Palestine question.

Neither candidate has outlined a comprehensive plan to end the war in Iraq. Both disagree on what constitutes success. Obama focuses on the pace of troop withdrawal (16 months after he’s elected), and McCain stresses military “victory", with troop withdrawal playing a secondary factor. In fact, the Bush administration has already accepted a major troop withdrawal within the next two years, because the Iraqi government now feels more secure and is demanding US forces leave sooner rather than later.

What will really impact American relations with the Muslim world is not the timing of withdrawal as much as the stabilisation of Iraq and its unity. Neither party in this election has a clear plan yet on how to secure Iraq for the long run, how to preserve its unity and how to fit this restructured state into the region. This is where the opportunities lie for enhancing US-Muslims relations.

As to the second issue of special relevance to US-Muslim relations, both candidates are vocal on the need to be independent from Middle East oil. Spontaneous oil autonomy is not realistic. Meanwhile, Arabs are not rushing for disengagement from America and remain a welcome presence in the US market.

A gradual reduction of oil importing from the Middle East, accompanied by and integrated with US support of Arab industrialisation, will not only bring about autonomy for Americans but also stimulate an economic industrial revival in oil-rich countries, providing jobs to millions of young people. Many oil countries operate vulnerable “rent economies". Oil economies also need independence from oil through diversification.

Palestine and the perceived bias of the United States toward Israel is the third issue that will impact Washington’s relations with Muslims. Unlike McCain, Obama seems to have a strong impulse to support the Middle East peace process. However, with Palestinians divided politically and Hamas in leadership, a US-led breakthrough between Palestinians and Israelis is unlikely in the near future.

But there are still opportunities for US involvement in the Middle East. The United States could work harder on the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process and start a new chapter of rapprochement with Iran. If there is progress in US-Syrian-Iranian diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli peace process will be automatically accelerated.

The coming elections may affect the future dynamics of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the profile of energy saving and the pace of the Arab-Israeli peace process. But regardless of which party is in the White House in January 2009, the United States will need to continue to work with many Muslim majority countries on a host of broad issues, and to consider Muslim Americans important within the mosaic of political constituencies and vital to the American social mix.


* Dr. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is an Arab American commentator and former Secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article first appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek’s Post Global and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).