The Biden Administration and Muslim World Engagement

By: Emile Nakhleh

December 11, 2020

Rethinking U.S. Engagement with Global Muslim Communities

​Context of Engagement

Engaging Muslim communities globally emerged as a policy option within the U.S. government shortly after the heinous 9/11 terrorist attacks. Beyond degrading terrorist groups and neutralizing their leaders, senior American policymakers after 9/11 began to explore the idea that the military approach by itself was not sufficient to counter the radical paradigm, especially among Muslim youth. Since a vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims did not participate in or condone violence and terrorism, the Bush administration in 2002 sought strategies for “Muslim world engagement.” 

As a government official focusing on political Islam, I participated in those high-level discussions, especially as they focused on key relevant questions: Who to engage? How to engage? With what to engage? Although the Bush administration understood the need to discredit radical ideologies, it emphasized the “strategic communication” aspect of engagement, not its substance. “Messaging” became all encompassing. I recall saying in one of those frequent meetings, “You can’t sell hot air!” and added, “Words do not put food on the table!”

By the fall of 2002, however, the Bush administration became fully seized with invading Iraq and the removal of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a new regime. As the invasion date got closer, Muslim world engagement was put on the backburner. When the administration resurrected the engagement issue in the 2004-05 timeframe, Iraq was already in the throes of a bloody insurgency and a deadly civil war. The administration’s focus shifted to fighting terrorism with engagement falling by the wayside.

In my frequent government briefings on engagement, I emphasized several key facts:

  • The Muslim world is highly diverse and complex. 
  • Vast majorities of Muslims are law-abiding and eschew violence.
  • Most Muslims are not political activists and tend to focus on bread-and-butter issues, including putting food on the table, educating their children, paying bills and mortgages, and keeping their families safe.
  • Most Muslims are not interested in religious debates and ideologies—whether mainstream or radical—but in specific policies and tangible projects that create jobs and offer more useful education. 

The Obama Administration and Engagement

President Obama’s speeches on engagement in Istanbul and Cairo in April and June 2009, respectively, resonated well in the Muslim world, reflecting a willingness to move beyond the confrontational policy of the previous administration and toward a new era of “smart diplomacy.” The bounce from his conciliatory rhetoric among Arabs and Muslims could have been long-lasting had the Cairo speech been followed by tangible engagement initiatives; significant policy shifts on human rights, political reform, democracy, war crimes, closing Guantanamo; and renewed efforts at the highest level to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As president-elect in fall 2008, Obama was briefed on the necessity to engage “Muslim communities” across Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries, as distinct from Islamic regimes. He saw the efficacy of this approach and proceeded to implement it early in his administration. He became convinced that counterterrorism policy should be supplemented with comprehensive outreach to mainstream Muslims in villages and small towns, not just upper-middle class urban elites. The thrust of the briefings was reflected in his Cairo speech, which I was privileged to contribute to. 

Six key assumptions underpinned Obama’s approach: 

  1. Muslims’ disagreements with the United States have been driven by specific policies not values.
  2. U.S. low standing in Muslim countries, which has been largely driven by the perceived war against Islam, is reversible.
  3. Effective U.S. engagement must be balanced and based on mutual respect, justice, and fairness.
  4. Empowering “communities” from below will in the aggregate move societies toward the common good.
  5. Effective and successful engagement must be done through credible, indigenous civil society institutions, including religiously based political parties even though some of these groups might oppose specific American policies.
  6. Engagement cannot succeed in a vacuum; it must be accompanied by tangible initiatives in education, micro-investment, economic development, job creation, science and technology, energy and clean water, independent judiciary, and the rule of law, and serious attempts at resolving regional conflicts. The litmus test should not be whether Muslim engagement partners oppose specific policies but their commitment to ideas of good governance, tolerance, and democracy. 

President-Elect Biden and Engagement

As president Obama’s vice president for eight years, Joe Biden supported the administration’s move toward engaging the wider Muslim world. They both supported the “single narrative” approach and endorsed the view that America was not at war with Islam; that all religions share many “noble” ideas of justice, tolerance, fairness; and that peoples in different societies, regardless of race, religion, and color should be able to select their governments freely. Furthermore, they were both committed to partner with American Muslims because they believed this community could act as a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world. 

Biden’s challenge, of course, is how to implement comprehensive engagement strategies in autocratic societies in which regimes abhor freedoms of thought and speech. For example, engagement could work well in Jordan but not in Egypt or Turkey. Here again, the social, political, and religious complexity and diversity becomes clear, and in some cases highly challenging, as one looks at the Muslim world from “Marrakesh to Bangladesh” and beyond.

Biden’s challenge, of course, is how to implement comprehensive engagement strategies in autocratic societies in which regimes abhor freedoms of thought and speech.

Political Islam and the role of Islamic political parties have changed significantly since the end of the Obama administration, and relations between the Trump administration and Muslim societies have soured considerably. Trump is viewed across the Muslim world as a racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant demagogue even though most Muslim autocrats have established a kindred spirit with him. Unlike these autocrats, Muslim communities have hailed Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat. In the meantime, Muslim populations worldwide have grown larger, poorer, and younger. Muslim youth under the age of 19 account for almost a third of the 1.6 billion plus Muslims worldwide. In the Middle East, for example, over half of the total population in 2017 were below the age of 24, and almost one third were below the age of 14. Many youth feel alienated, isolated, poor, and angry. They suffer from hopelessness and a lack of belonging and yearn for a future that promises a decent living, a sense of dignity and self-worth, and hope. 

Among the myriad of problems and challenges in the Middle East facing President-elect Biden upon taking office on January 20, 2021—for example, failing states, terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli-Palestinian-Arab relations—Muslim world engagement looms very large. Heretofore, the U.S. State Department and USAID carried the burden of engaging Muslim communities. However, because of the severe cuts in funds and personnel in the past four years, the Department of State’s engagement has been anemic. If the Biden administration develops a long-term engagement agenda, it should take an all-government capacity approach under the direction of the National Security Council. This is a generational effort that would take years to bear fruits and certainly transcends any one president.

If the Biden administration develops a long-term engagement agenda, it should take an all-government capacity approach under the direction of the National Security Council.

Other government departments and agencies must get involved in this effort. For example, the Department of Education could work with other societies and communities to start vocational programs to train the youth for badly needed careers as mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, electronic technicians, electricians, nurses, radiology technicians, tour guides, and television and telephone repair people. Other departments such as Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, and Energy could use their expertise to help Muslim societies in their development efforts, from job creation and start-ups to agriculture, power generation, and the rule of law. The Department of Energy national laboratories, such as Sandia and Los Alamos National Labs, could share their world-class research in clean water and food and energy security with so many countries, especially as millions of children die every year from drinking polluted water and from malnutrition. 

A robust engagement policy comprised of tangible programs and based on collaboration with Muslim communities will help lift many Muslim populations from poverty, which will diminish the appeal of radical ideologies and terrorism. Implementing a “New Beginning,” as was highlighted in Obama’s Cairo speech 11 years ago, will also serve American national interest and security.

Editor's Note: This post was republished by the Cipher Brief on December 14, 2020. It was also republished by Responsible Statecraft, a publication sponsored by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, on December 15, 2020

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