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Sunday, June 13, 2021

America needs a foreign policy by Muslims for Muslims

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This article is part of MEI’s series on the Biden Transition.
 

America is no longer living in a post-9/11 era. Today’s national security threats look vastly different than those it faced from transnational terrorist groups almost 20 years ago. America is long overdue in opening a new chapter with Muslims living in the United States and around the world. Now more than ever, the Biden administration needs an inclusive foreign policy toward the Muslim world that draws upon the talents of Muslim Americans, who are better situated to be a trusted bridge between Washington and Muslim capitals.

President Joe Biden inherited a different global order than the one he left as vice president in 2017. China’s rise is reshaping power dynamics within the international community. European allies are drifting away from Washington. And regional partners like Turkey and Pakistan are breaking away from their traditional alliances and have the potential to tilt the balance.

President Biden’s nominees are fully aware of the challenges America faces today. The thinking of nominees, like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.N. Ambassador-designate Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is centered around restoring confidence in American leadership, revitalizing transatlantic relations, maintaining the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and creating consensus among democratic nations on China. However, to achieve these objectives, President Biden must develop a foreign policy that speaks to the global Muslim narrative and engages the Muslim world. This starts by empowering Muslim-Americans in his government to formulate and shape his foreign policy message.

Getting Biden’s foreign policy towards the Muslim world on the path to success will have profound implications beyond the Middle East. And, of course, by lifting the “Muslim ban” on his first day as president, Biden is off to a good start with Muslim Americans and the Muslim world.

With almost two billion Muslims spread across 50 Muslim-majority countries, all with large diaspora communities, the Muslim world is deeply connected to the broad contours of U.S. foreign policy. Even beyond the Middle East and North Africa, in countries and regions as varied as China (Uighurs), India (Jammu and Kashmir), Myanmar (Rohingya), and the Sahel and the Horn of Africa (non-state actors), the United States has much at stake both morally and strategically. Having a foreign policy for the Muslim world crafted by Muslims is not a luxury for Washington. It is a must, given the Muslim world’s geostrategic and geoeconomic weight in an era of great power competition.

Since 9/11, Washington has looked to the Muslim world largely through a counterterrorism lens. Governments have been viewed as allies or enemies depending on their support (or lack thereof) for U.S. counterterrorism operations, regardless of their positions on human rights issues or their authoritarianism. This narrow-minded strategy lacked nuance and framed the United States in the eyes of the average Muslim as anti-Islam. Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” only helped solidify this viewpoint.

Turning the page

Biden has the opportunity to turn the page on the 9/11 playbook with his first major global policy initiative: the Summit of Democracies. The summit is expected to include the G7 nations, in addition to Australia, India, and South Korea. However, democratic Muslim powers, especially in Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, should be included as well. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur could act as the bridge that Biden needs to the Muslim world without undermining the democratic bar that he set for the Summit.

By inviting Muslim powers to the Summit of Democracies, Washington can build a broader agenda of engagement with the Muslim world and escape the widely-held view that Washington only seeks transactional relations on counterterrorism. Ultimately, America should aim to work with Muslim powers on areas of shared concern. From nuclear non-proliferation to climate change to human rights abuses against Muslim groups in Asia, in addition to ongoing counterterrorism challenges like addressing transnational Islamist terrorist organizations in the MENA, Sahel, and Horn of Africa regions, there are great opportunities for future cooperation.

The United States remains the world’s undeniable superpower on many metrics and is already a security guarantor to a number of Muslim nations. The value proposition is clear. And yet, America has a messenger problem in its engagement with the Muslim world.

Historically, the main drivers of U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world were often policymakers who believed in the inevitability of the “clash of civilizations” and “Muslim rage,” or sometimes even thought leaders who held racist and orientalist views toward the region. With all of the global challenges we currently face, the Biden administration must find creative solutions and craft a shared narrative of respect that resonates with the Muslim world. Fortunately, America has people well placed to do just this: Muslim Americans. Muslim American policymakers have the credibility and the cultural and religious understanding to shape forward-leaning policies that will create goodwill with their Muslim counterparts. Simply put, the Biden administration needs more Muslim Americans in its foreign policy ranks.

The Biden administration should of course be applauded for the racial and gender diversity among its senior foreign policy positions. With Thomas-Greenfield as the U.N. ambassador-designate, Lloyd Austin as the secretary of defense, Samantha Power as the USAID administrator-designate, and Avril Haines as the director of national intelligence, clear efforts have been made to better reflect America’s demographics.

However, there is undeniably a lack of diversity of faith among Biden’s nominees. Muslims have been largely absent from key foreign policy positions that work on their regions of origin, despite their increasing political, economic, cultural, and electoral presence in American life. In fact, the 3.5 million Muslim Americans are among the most politically active religious groups and played a decisive role in the last presidential election. The Biden administration needs to address the issue of Muslim representation for both greater diversity and better strategy on the domestic and international front. Muslim Americans are one of the most educatedgroups in the U.S. with great appreciation for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They largely come from immigrant families, whose parents or grandparents came to the United States in recent decades in search of better opportunities. Values of loyalty and appreciation for American democracy are instilled in the children of Muslim immigrants today. Not utilizing Muslim Americans in political and diplomatic affairs would undoubtedly be a lost opportunity to make amends with people who have been attacked and marginalized at home and abroad by previous administrations.

The way forward

The solution is to staff Muslim Americans in key roles and empower them to contribute to U.S. foreign policy toward the Muslim world. The president can start by considering Muslims for the deputy assistant secretary or administrator positions for regional bureaus covering Muslim- majority countries in the three pillars of the U.S. foreign policy establishment: the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and USAID. Indeed, there are plenty of excellent Muslim foreign policy professionals who are no strangers to these agencies, and their cultural ties to their regions of origin — the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, West Africa, Horn of Africa, South Asia, and maritime Southeast Asia — could prove an additional asset on top of their other credentials.

The administration should also create two key roles: Special adviser to the president on the Muslim world and the Muslim world czar at the National Security Council. There is a precedent for this. President George W. Bush created the position of special adviser/envoy on the Muslim world following 9/11, and both he and President Barack Obama wisely filled the position with a Muslim American. While it no longer exists, this position provides a great starting point for the Biden administration, and putting in place this type of team will help not only shape foreign policy toward the Muslim world, but will also advance the administration’s objectives across three continents on many strategic issues.

In the post-9/11 era and with the return of great power competition, Washington needs a real and lasting partnership with the Muslim world. An Obama-esque visit and speech in Cairo or a Trump-esque visit and summit in Riyadh will soon be forgotten, although such outreach was better than nothing at the time. The Biden administration has a real chance at forging lasting and meaningful change in the Muslim world, and Muslim Americans should be front and center in U.S. foreign policy to help make that vision a reality.

 

Mohammed Soliman is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Cyber Program. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in the Middle East and North Africa. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Photo by ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP via Getty Images

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