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US urged to build ties with Muslims

The US must completely rethink its approach to the Muslim world according to a bipartisan group of American leaders.

The United States must completely rethink its approach to the Muslim world, abandon its aggressive military posture in favour of more diplomacy and deal with countries that it considers enemies, according to a bipartisan group of American leaders that issued a report this week. The 34-member US-Muslim Engagement Project - which counts Madeleine Albright, a former US secretary of state, and other top political, economic and religious authorities among its members - encourages the US government to reverse much of George W Bush's foreign policy in order to repair its relationship with Muslim countries, which the group says has been marred by "conflict, misunderstanding and distrust". Among the suggestions are that the United States enter talks with Iran and consider communicating with other entities, including "armed activist movements", that Mr Bush has long barred from the negotiating table. In the report, Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with The Muslim World, the leaders also advocated that Washington retake the lead in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, push for democratic reforms in countries that are considered vital allies and prohibit all forms of torture. The group says such changes will reduce the threat posed by militant extremists. "Maintaining the status quo raises the spectre of prolonged confrontation, catastrophic attacks, and a cycle of retaliation," the report said. Both John McCain and Barack Obama received an advanced copy of the report, and "both have found the report of value and interest", said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and one of many philanthropists who worked on the project. The group did not endorse either candidate, but urged the next president to outline a new strategy for US-Muslim relations in his inaugural address in January. "The next president should begin with a fresh approach, should think anew and should act with boldness and with innovation," said Steve Bartlett, a group member and a former Republican congressman from Texas. The call for dialogue with Iran comes after years of scepticism over its nuclear ambitions. Iran has maintained its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes while US leaders believe the country's goal is to create nuclear weapons. Under Mr Bush, the United States has consistently lobbied to stiffen economic sanctions, grouped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in an "axis of evil" and frozen all diplomatic ties. Mr Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, said he plans to sit at the table with Iran, while Mr McCain, the Republican candidate, has called that approach "reckless". Neither has ruled out a military option. Although the report's authors have different views on how productive such consultations will be, they "unanimously agree that the United States needs to engage with Iran to see if we can resolve the major issues dividing us", said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the leadership group. "We encourage an approach that uses both carrots and sticks." The report also advises the next president to reach out to other groups that Mr Bush has shunned, though members declined to specify whether they advocated working with the likes of Hamas and Hizbollah, two groups that the United States considers terrorist organisations. The report suggests leaders should choose their partners on a "case-by-case" basis. "It is going to be difficult and painful for us on some occasions as well as very uncomfortable, but we have to support principles not political parties," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy and a member of the group. Mr Weber also said the next president should leverage his power to push for democratic reforms in allied countries. "The United States cannot blindly support authoritarian governments that suppress the democrats in their own society simply because it's in the United States' interest," he said. The report also lists broadening economic ties between the United States and Muslim countries and creating more jobs in Muslim countries as a way to combat extremism. Poor economic conditions and a lack of upwards mobility are factors that drive up the membership of militant groups, members said, adding that the United States is often seen as "complicit" in Muslim poverty. "Many people in Muslim majority societies translate their frustration in their situations to anti-American views and see us as supporting corrupt governments that fail to make economic progress a priority goal for their society," said Ahmed Younis, a group member and a senior analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute and also part of the group, said the report advocates increased co-operation with Muslim countries - especially with oil-producers - in creating alternative energy sources such as solar power. But the most basic - and to many members, the most important - initiative in the report is a plan to create "mutual respect" between Muslims and Americans. The leaders cited misinformation and a widespread lack of empathy as an obstacle to improving ties. "There is nothing more dangerous to us than ? deep perceptions that America fundamentally disrespects Islam and disrespects Muslims," said William Ury, co-founder of Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation and a member of the group. While changing those perceptions requires an all-out effort to expand "cross cultural education and interfaith exchange", the report said, it can also be achieved through smaller symbolic gestures. Mr Ury said, for example, that US leaders should stop using the words "Islam" and "terrorism" in the same sentence, which many Muslims find insulting. He said a few words of solidarity from America's next leader or a presidential visit could also go a long way. "Symbolism really matters," Mr Ury said. "There is nothing that cost us less than to give respect to another human being." sstanek@thenational.ae

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