White House reaches out to Muslim world using new tone

Emphasis placed on business, less on counterterror

By Matt Apuzzo
Associated Press / April 8, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Less talk about “Islamic radicalism’’ and a lot more about doing business. In the year since President Obama pledged a new beginning in the relationship with the Muslim world, the White House has begun to change the US focus.

Terrorism still dominates US security concerns, but the White House believes it does not have to dominate the conversation. Since Obama’s speech in Cairo last year, the White House has tried to talk more about health care, science, and education.

It is a strategy based on the belief that the prior administration viewed the world through the lens of terrorism. And when it talked to Muslim nations, it was all about winning the war of ideas.

“You take a country where the overwhelming majority are not going to become terrorists, and you go in and say, ‘We’re building you a hospital so you don’t become terrorists.’ That doesn’t make much sense,’’ says National Security Council staff member Pradeep Ramamurthy.

Ramamurthy runs the administration’s Global Engagement Directorate, a four-person team that Obama launched last May with little fanfare and a vague mission to use diplomacy and outreach “in pursuit of a host of national security objectives.’’ The division has not only helped change the vocabulary of fighting terrorism but has shaped the way the country invests in Muslim businesses, studies global warming, supports scientific research, and combats polio.

Also, Obama advisers who are rewriting a document spelling out the country’s national security strategy plan to leave out references to “Islamic radicalism,’’ counterterrorism officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the document is still being written. Currently, the document declares: “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century.’’

Ramamurthy’s team is reaching out in a variety of ways. Before diplomats go abroad, they hear from him or his deputy, Jenny Urizar. When officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration returned from Indonesia, the NSC got a rundown about research opportunities on global warming.

Ramamurthy maintains a database of interviews conducted by 50 US embassies worldwide. And business leaders from more than 40 countries head to Washington this month for an “entrepreneurship summit’’ for Muslim businesses. “Do you want to think about the US as the nation that fights terrorism or the nation you want to do business with?’’ Ramamurthy said.

Many international Muslim leaders have praised the new tone, because it makes it politically easier for them to cooperate with the United States. “It’s also a clear indication of President Obama’s substantial understanding of the intricacies of Muslim politics,’’ Jordanian lawmaker Hamada Faraaneh said.

Yesterday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh spoke of indications that the Obama administration would keep religious rhetoric out of its strategy.

“It is a good message of assurance, and differs from the former American administration’s position on this matter, which showed no real understanding of Islamic countries,’’ Dabbagh said. “This decision by Obama will help to reform the image Muslims have of America.’’