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Changing the Debate on Relations with the Muslim World

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden is a huge victory for the United States in the struggle against al Qaeda – a measure of justice for 9/11, a display of resolve and skill by our armed forces, and an action greeted with enormous relief by the public. It’s impossible to say what all the implications will be, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to change the debate about one of the biggest challenges facing our nation.

The difficult questions that still surround America’s role in the Muslim world are a prime example of the need to help the public up their “learning curve” on complex issues, write Public Agenda’s co-founder Dan Yankelovich and President Will Friedman in their new book, Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Muslim extremists have always been a small fraction of the Muslim population, most of whom reject violence. But for years, “Muslim extremists have successfully made us scapegoats for the failure of so many Muslim nations to build their own just and prosperous societies,” they write.

Meanwhile, Americans have been wrestling with their views about a religion and culture that many admit they don’t understand. Surveys show the public dissatisfied with the war in Iraq for years, and growing more doubtful about Afghanistan. And surveys also show most Americans think we’ve put too much emphasis on military solutions, rather than diplomatic ones, in dealing with terrorism.

Presenting the public with choices – real value-based alternatives for policy – could be enormously helpful in moving the public forward. Setting options side by side enables the public to weigh options, consider alternatives and come to considered judgment about what strategy the United States should follow.

The good news is that there have been huge changes in the Muslim world over the past year. Even before bin Laden’s death, international surveys showed support plummeting for both him and al Qaeda in Muslim countries. In addition, as many commentators have pointed out, al Qaeda hasn’t been a factor in the protests sweeping countries like Egypt and Libya this year. The “Arab spring” has been driven by citizens tired of aging, authoritarian regimes and ready for change.

That suggests events are outstripping the extremists, and the Muslim world may be turning against them. That’s an opportunity for the United States. Since 9/11, we never really grabbed onto the opportunities to engage Americans in building a better relationship with the Muslim world. Now we may have another chance – if we can seize it.


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