IslamOnline.net carries an interview with US Senator John Kerry, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the former US presidential democratic candidate. He answers a few readers’ questions on some hotly-debated issues concerning US-Muslim relations.
IOL: How does the United States view Muslim communities around the world?
Kerry: As President Obama made clear with his speech in Cairo, America has started a new chapter in our history with Muslim communities worldwide. He shattered stereotypes on both sides, reminded the West and the Muslim world of our responsibilities, and reaffirmed one of America’s highest ideals and traditional roles — that those who seek freedom and democracy, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have no greater friend than the United States of America.
In February, I visited Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. In April, I visited Pakistan and Sudan. At every turn, I heard a newfound willingness by people and governments alike to take a fresh look at America.
America is sending a simple message to all Muslims wherever they live: we share your aspirations for freedom, dignity, justice, and security. We are ready to listen, to learn, and to honor the President’s commitment to approach the Muslim world with a spirit of mutual respect.
The United States has a great deal of work to do. An alarming number of Muslims today believe that our goal is not to end terrorism, but to dominate or diminish Islam itself.
And their mistrust is reciprocated by many Westerners who now wonder whether the gaps between us are unbridgeable, whether higher walls or fewer visas can substitute for the difficult task of coexistence.
Part of America restoring trust will be broadening relations with Muslim nations beyond the few lightning-rod topics — combating poverty, climate change, investing in human development and creating knowledgeable societies.
Among our most effective steps to counteract extremism was providing the humanitarian aid to Pakistan and Indonesia in the wake of natural disasters: what mattered wasn’t merely the assistance, it was the sight of American troops actively working to save Muslim lives.
Here we see what has become the hallmark of US public diplomacy towards Muslims: reference to a mythical construct known as the Muslim world. I discussed the problems arising from the use of such lazy and imprecise terminology here.
We also note the assumption that Muslims everywhere, in spite the huge cultural, linguistic AND religious diversity, will all respond to this message that somehow resonates with human beings everywhere. There’s no room for the different perceptions of what freedom, dignity, justice and security might mean to Egyptian Muslims say, or those Muslims who live outside the Middle East.
And then a further reference to Muslim nations, despite the fact even in countries with substantial Muslim majority populations, a wide array of sects, affiliations and levels of religious observance compose these majorities; not to mention those adherents of other faiths who don’t relish the idea of their nation being referred to as ‘Muslim’. Hardly inclusive dialogue, Senator Kerry!
IOL: Which Muslims will the United States prefer to speak to (Imams, Mullahs, leaders, or people)?
Kerry: The United States is eager to engage with legitimate and respected voices from Muslim communities representing broad swathes of society, which could include civic, religious, government, and business leaders, civil society actors, and ordinary citizens.
Who are the ‘legitimate ‘ voices of Muslim communities? Who could say that they speak on behalf of Islam, anywhere? Up till now, this sort of methodology has led to Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood securing the right to speak for different communties; something that has led to the marginalisation of moderates and those considered ‘unorthodox’ Muslims.