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CEPS European Neighbourhood Watch. Issue 50


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CEPS European Neighbourhood Watch. Issue 50

Editorial by Michael Emerson: «Islam, Obama and Europe»

President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4th was an outstanding example of public diplomacy in action at the highest strategic level.

For some time even before his election, Europeans had become persuaded that this could be an American president whom they could admire for his extraordinary professional and personal qualities and for political inclinations in domestic and foreign policy that they could be comfortable with. These positive reactions, along with sighs of relief that his dreadful predecessor had departed from the political stage, have not diminished as the President got to work in his first half year. For Europe this was a re-discovery of the America with which it can share an ambitious transatlantic alliance and partnership.

But Obama’s approach towards the Muslim world, first in Turkey in early April and then in Cairo in June, was of a different order. He brought an entirely fresh discourse to matters related to Islam: he cut “terrorism” from his vocabulary, recalled his own middle name Hussein and clearly told the new Netanyahu government that it should get serious about the peace process. The outreach of his message, with the aid of powerful communications technologies, was huge. This was a speech that instantly also became political action. Nothing was negotiated with anyone. However the tone and content of the discourse between America and Islam, in political circles as well as on Arab streets, were already changed for the better.

CEPS for its part has just published a book, Islamic Radicalisation: The Challenge for Euro-Mediterranean Relations, whose message fits well with the Obama demarche, and points to the renewed potential for transatlantic collaboration. This book is about how or to what extent the EU in its policies towards the Arab world should engage with Islamist movements, which come in a full spectrum ranging from the violently radicalised to those who wish to participate in democratic processes with a moderate agenda. Since the EU began to shape a foreign policy agenda in the 1990s, it has always taken mild positions in relation to the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world, as also towards the aggressive settlement expansion policies of Israel. In a concluding chapter by Muriel Asseburg, the book advocates a change of approach towards the Arab states of the Mediterranean in three dimensions: 1) to put pressure on incumbent regimes to stop the repression of moderate Islamist opposition movements, 2) to seek to influence the legal and political framework in favour of more open political participation and 3) to engage in dialogue with non-violent opposition forces, both Islamist and non-Islamist. While the EU has not provoked the depth of mistrust and anger of the Arab world achieved by the Bush administration, it has still earned widespread criticism over its apparent double standards on matters of democracy in relation to the Arab world and lack of determination in confronting Israel over its breaches of international law in its operations in the Palestinian territories.

During the Bush years of fruitless roadmaps and feckless monitoring by the Quartet, the foreign ministers of the EU were unwilling to step out of line with the minimalist tokenism that Washington was dictating. In the new situation, this self-imposed constraint is dissolved. The EU has now no excuse not to proceed with a recalibration of its Middle East policies, both to address political Islam constructively in the manner just outlined and to take much more robust positions towards Israel to reinforce the Obama message.

№7-8(35), 2009