Correction to This Article
A previous version of this column misidentified David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as an Israeli. Although Makovsky has written for many Israeli publications, he is a native of St. Louis.

Mr. Obama's Outreach to Muslims

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 1, 2009

President Obama repeatedly extended his hand to the world's Muslims in his first 10 days in power. His respectful tone and gestures toward Arab states in particular were as welcome as they were deft. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the gears of history have shifted and what Americans have come to call the "war on terror" is over.

Let's be clear: Americans did not initiate the conflict with al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists, and Americans will not be the ones to declare an end to the struggle against violent extremism practiced in the name of jihad.

That is a task that falls to Muslims themselves. At its core, this struggle is over the future of Islam. Obama must work hard to make sure that his well-intentioned gestures of comity do not obscure this reality -- and do not provoke a new whiplash of resentment and doubt if they do not bring the results he wants.

Even Israelis should applaud the president's decisions to direct his first overseas telephone call to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, to grant his first televised interview at the White House to al-Arabiya's Hisham Melhem and to send special envoy George Mitchell on a "listening tour" that began not in Jerusalem but in Cairo.

"This underlines that Middle East peace efforts are not a zero-sum game, in which Israel loses if Washington has good relations with Arab states," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

And it makes sense for Mitchell to update himself on the scene before plunging into the world's trickiest mediation. Anyone who walks the now horribly polluted streets of Cairo after a long absence, as I did recently, will sense the frustrations and furies that help drive a regional rebellion that is part spiritual, part ideological and totally nihilistic. The young -- and many of their elders -- turn to a perverted version of Islam to rebel simultaneously against their sclerotic, failing local governments and the uneven, destabilizing intrusiveness of Western culture and economic forces.

There is no mistaking the Egyptian government's concern that the biggest threat to its stability today comes from within and not from abroad, as it did when I first visited Cairo in 1970. Then a "war of attrition" with Israel compelled Egyptians and foreigners to huddle behind blackout curtains and douse lights at night to avoid Israeli air raids.

Now the circle of fear is smaller -- and even more menacing to those inside it. International hotels require guests to pass through metal detectors and to submit baggage to X-ray machines and explosive-sniffing dogs. Many hotel lobbies in the Arab world today have the feel of airport security lines or restricted military bases. Foreigners -- and locals who associate with them -- are protected as the targets they have become for jihadists or other madmen.

Mitchell may want to seek out such street truth, since he is likely to meet with a blanket of denial or silence in his official contacts in Cairo. When I sought to explore what Egypt would do to help halt smuggling of arms through Egyptian territory into the Gaza Strip, I was told that such smuggling was not a major factor because Hamas obtained most of its weapons from Israeli arms dealers or corrupt Israeli soldiers. In other words: Not our problem, so don't expect us to do anything about it.

"The language we use matters," the president told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya network. As a journalist, I couldn't agree more. But Arabs understand all too well how to use words as a substitute for action. Obama will not get very far if he tries to outdo them in a game of rhetoric.

That is why it is important to keep what the new president has and has not achieved in perspective. Obama has abandoned a George W. Bush slogan -- the war on terror -- that even Don Rumsfeld and other aides thought was misleading. But the struggle to locate, disrupt and destroy international terrorist networks -- which target other Muslims even more often than they target foreign infidels, Jews and "crusaders" -- goes on. The Taliban's quest to return Afghanistan to its misogynistic savagery goes on. Egyptian fanatics who assassinated Anwar Sadat still aim to kill Hosni Mubarak. These efforts will continue, irrespective of Obama's words.

The war on terrorism over? As Hemingway has Jake say ruefully to Brett at the end of "The Sun Also Rises": "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Pretty, but self-deceiving, for sure.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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