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The US courts the hearts and minds of Muslims

By Pritam Singh - posted Monday, 15 May 2006

March was a significant month for Indonesia. Visits by Condeleeza Rice and Tony Blair have put this country of 220 million Muslims at the centre of what appears to be a dedicated effort to win Muslim hearts and minds. World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz's (ex-US ambassador to Indonesia) follow-up visit to the archipelago in April continues in similar vein.

Tactically, the approach appears spot-on: dealing with the Muslim ground at close quarters with dialogue, development and friendship as key enablers. Strategically however, this approach threatens to meet only with limited success unless a grand strategy is conceived to address the overriding concerns of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims.

During her visit, Rice remarked, "There is a lack of understanding about how much the United States respects people of the Islamic faith". Specifically, she referred to the American support offered in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2005, when 130,000 Indonesians perished, as evidence of consistency to her claim.


Unfortunately for Rice, respect for the Islamic faith, as far as US policy towards the Muslim world is concerned, does not correspond with piecemeal displays of altruism. The phenomenon of the ummah has seen to that.

Unlike other religions, Islam today is unique in that a vast majority of its adherents share a broadly similar position on the state of world affairs. The recent Islamic cartoon controversy that purportedly pitted freedom of expression against respect for religious sensitivities is a case in point. The response to this perceived crime committed by newspapers that published the cartoons was markedly similar across the Muslim world, ranging from verbal castigation to open violence.

This internationally common position defines the ummah as a globalised entity. Although the existence of a personified and supranational Islamic perspective lacks precise definition, it is not void of particular characteristics.

First, loyalty to the state and loyalty to the ummah are not mutually exclusive. There is no contradiction in this dialectic, and Muslims worldwide are au fait about the plight of their brethren, largely because of the information revolution facilitated by the Internet, live television and dedicated channels such as Al-Jazeera. These facilities have provided them with the tools required to visualise, contextualise and ultimately, understand the world around them.

Second, the ummah is united by a common worldview - one that did not develop overnight. It grew out of a sense that the US is not an honest broker with regard to the Palestinian conflict and purportedly supports corrupt regimes if it is to American benefit. The US picks fights with Muslim countries while remaining subdued if others commit similar transgresses, maintains a double standard with regard to democracy, exemplified best by Hamas' recent victory in the Palestinian elections, and at worst, is anti-Muslim, despite Rice’s proclamation. The American bureaucracy's discomfort at an Arab company controlling key American ports in the recent Dubai Ports World imbroglio is seen as an example of US perfidy towards the Muslim world.

Third, the ummah interprets certain aspects of Western civilisation as antithetical to its value system. Interestingly, this does not necessarily connote a rejection of democracy or human rights, or other values America holds dear. The nature of this "anti-US-ness" is rooted in a religious view that places God at the centre of the universe. Western civilisation is perceived as superceding the divinity of God, forcing the Muslim world to accept a reality that has serious implications vis-à-vis Mohammed's (pbuh) message.


However unappetising it may be for Western policymakers, the summary confiscation of the Occupied Territories is the clarion call that unites the ummah and more than anything else, the continued occupation of Palestine is the adhesive that bonds it.

Exacerbating this in the recent past is US-driven desire to haul Iran up to the Security Council while UNSC Resolution 242 continues to be interpreted loosely. Although the two issues are obviously separate, the perception that dominates in the mind of the ummah is a US penchant to manipulate the international system to its advantage, or go it alone with its military might if need be.

Rice may want to consider extended talks in future with Dr Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the 30 million strong Muhammadiyah, one of the two largest Muslim organisations in Indonesia, who on the back of her visit noted, "I personally see a sincerity in the Americans trying to reach out to Muslims through co-operation with Muslim organisations here. (However) a real change would only happen if (the Muslims) see changes in the root cause of their unhappiness - a change in American foreign policies towards the Muslim world, for example in the Palestine issue."

Should there be any doubts about the magnitude of task ahead, Blair's response to Indonesian students when grilled over US foreign policy was succinct, "You have a view of America which is not a view I share". The need for an ultimately more nuanced policy to win Muslim hearts and minds does not rest with the unresolved issue of Palestinian nationalism alone. Addressing the fundamental determinants that characterise the global ummah would represent the building blocks that define any grand strategy to win Muslim hearts and minds.

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About the Author

Pritam Singh is a Research Associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views reflected are his own.

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