No Clash of Civilizations at U.S. Islamic World Forum

Dateline Doha Qatar

I am attending the U.S. - Islamic World Forum sponsored by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and the Govt. of Qatar. If the sentiments expressed at this year's conference are any guide, Americans can perhaps be reassured that the once feared "clash of civilizations" between the U.S. and the Islamic world has not taken root in the Middle East. No doubt there remains tremendous disappointment with Bush administration Mid East foreign policy throughout this volatile region. Nevertheless, there is palpable desire among conferees to cooperate, communicate, and explore new policy changes to fix the gulf that has clearly divided America and other Muslim states since 9/11. That was certainly not the spirit that I found at the conference (now in its fifth year) a few years ago.

Presidential politics was front and center on the 2nd day of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Joe Klein of TIME magazine hosted a roundtable composed of prominent Muslim leaders from Palestine, Egypt and Indonesia to discuss what the Muslim world hopes from America in the next administration. In a tribute to how much the U.S. campaign has penetrated the hearts and minds of Muslims, there was an impressive display of unanimity among the panel. In an echo heard from home, the words "change" and "hope" were used often by the speakers to describe what they most wanted from the next president. The U.S. presidential campaign is very much a front page story in all of the Arab media that I have seen and read during my trip throughout the Gulf states, illustrative of how much the Arab world is focused on its twists and turns. Of course, it was no surprise that the Indonesian rep favored the candidate that had attended public school in Jakarta (hint, he is the current junior senator from IL).

In a further impressive display of how far collective Muslim sentiments have changed toward the U.S., the keynote speakers agreed that the next American president will have a new window of opportunity to reverse perceptions and attitudes that have brought America's standing in the Muslim world to new and dangerous lows.

Representing the Muslim world, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, and Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan all recommended that the next American president focus on the fight against Al Qaeda and avoid inflaming Islamic sentiments that actually reject Bin Ladenism and which could be enlisted in the struggle against extremism. Karzai urged the gathering to remind the American public that terrorism incited by Al Qaeda and the Taliban has taken far more innocent Muslim lives throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Arab World in 2007 than the American people have endured since 2001. and that Muslim states have come up short combatting the threat of extremism in their midst.

U.S. keynote speakers included former SecState Albright and current UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad. Both urged their Muslim audience to help the next American president, whoever that may be, to help prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state and preventing its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands and to take a more assertive role in solving the Arab-israeli conflict. Much to the surprise of American attendees, there was nary a call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Muslim world speakers (other than the one Indonesian) favor an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but not a precipitous withdrawal that would leave Iraq in chaos and in the hands of extremists.

Task forces on security, culture, human development have brought together panels of experts from the U.S. and the entire Muslim world to plan new initiatives. There was even an Iranian hip-hop artist in attendance.

Conferences such as these are essential bridges to rebuild renewed trust and confidence between the U.S. and Muslim nations. It is reassuring that the resentment and anger that hallmarked past years seems to have given way to a far more open and receptive Muslim audience with perhaps unduly high expectations of what the next U.S. president can do to help solve this region's problems. It is a testament to so much hope and expectation that attendess yearn for a president who can actually make a positive difference in the Muslim world.

Memo to the next president: from Morocco to Indonesia, if we (and they) don't blow the opportunity, there is a chance to make the "long war" a far shorter war.