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Barack Obama Should Visit Jakarta or Istanbul in His First 100 Days

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By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Saturday, December 20, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama's plan to visit a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office is an excellent idea. Delivering a message of U.S. reconciliation with the rest of the world may as well begin with the 1.4 billion Muslims. After all, America's most vexing foreign policy challenges in recent decades have been centered in the Islamic world, and opinion polls have shown that this is where the deepest grievances with recent American policy can be found.

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But which capital? The choice that Obama makes will send as clear a message as anything he has to say.

Alongside America's own legitimate interests in Muslim-majority regions are the legitimate interests of the people of those regions and the vested interests of their rulers. And therein lies a delicate balancing act for Obama. Many of these rulers are despotic, repressive and corrupt, but some of them have also been friends or outright allies of the United States. They have traded on their countries' strategic assets to stay in power through America's blessing and billions of dollars in its aid. Delivering a major policy speech from the capital of one of these friendly dictators would give comfort to that ruler while compounding the alienation of his people.

A recent Gallup poll, summed up in the Brookings Institution report "The Doha Compact," which was published in October, revealed that despite their misgivings about the United States, more than two-thirds of the Muslims surveyed admire American democracy, education, technology and entrepreneurship. These findings are borne out by the facts. Until Sept. 11, 2001, there were only three American universities in the Muslim world; today, there are more than 30. Similar growth has occurred in the presence of American business, from chain stores to fast-food restaurants to branches of leading corporations.

Since democracy, a deeply held value of Americans, has become an aspiration for most Muslims, democracy should be central to Obama's message -- and to his choice of where to deliver it. Two key Muslim-majority countries are many years into a steady democratic transition. The first is Indonesia, which with more than 200 million people is the most populous of all Muslim lands. An additional attraction is that Obama spent much of his childhood there. A visit would be a homecoming of sorts.

The second country is Turkey. With more than 70 million people in territory lying in Asia and Europe, it is literally and metaphorically a bridge between East and West, North and South.

The political and sociocultural choices that Indonesia and Turkey have made are in clear accord with the essence of modernity. By their example, Indonesia and Turkey have laid to rest both Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" proposition and the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible.

While the rest of the Muslim world has a long way to go toward democracy, Indonesia and Turkey should be celebrated as role models. Nothing would speak louder and clearer to that notion than an early visit by the universally popular Barack Obama.

Let his first stop, and his first message, be delivered from Jakarta or Istanbul. Then, perhaps, Cairo and Damascus will take the democratic actions necessary to earn the honor of a visit before the end of his first term.

The writer, an Egyptian sociologist and democracy and human rights advocate living in exile, is a visiting professor at Harvard and Indiana universities. The Agenda is an occasional series on policy issues facing the Obama administration.


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