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Leader of Islamic Group Urges U.S. to Keep Promises

IN HIS SPEECH TO the Muslim world in Egypt earlier this year, President Barack Obama gave the Muslim world assurances that the United States is not at war with Islam, but the administration must now transform its good intentions into policies and programs to promote a “new beginning,” according to Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Speaking in Washington at an event sponsored by the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, Ihsanoglu stressed the importance of making “this historical reconciliation” between the United States and the Muslim world. “You will not find that the Muslim world is a rival to you,” he said. “On the contrary you will find that the Muslim world will be a good ally to you, and you can have good relations for the interests of everybody.”

Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council, noted that many of the administration’s current foreign policy priorities—peace in the Middle East, controlling nuclear proliferation worldwide, stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, and withdrawing forces from Iraq—are affected by its relations with the Muslim world.

Ihsanoglu, who is the first leader of the 57-member bloc of Muslim majority states to be elected by vote, recommended that President Obama appoint a special envoy to the OIC as his predecessor did. Former President George W. Bush appointed Pakistan-born, Texas businessman Sada Cumber as special envoy to the OIC in March 2008.

“We need to see good intentions transferred to policies, and policies transferred to programs, and programs to be implemented,” Ihsanoglu said.

During the week of Ihsanoglu’s Washington visit, the U.S. State Department announced in an internal memo that Indianborn American Farah Pandith would serve as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “special representative to Muslim communities.” Pandith served for three years on former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, where she was responsible for coordinating U.S. policy on Muslim world outreach. In 2007 Pandith took on another role, heading up the State Department’s outreach to Muslims in Europe.

At a press briefing after Pandith was appointed to her new position, she explained her role and emphasized that listening is a key component. “It’s really understanding what’s taking place on the ground. It’s finding opportunities through our embassies to get to know what others are saying and thinking and dreaming and believing, and acting as a facilitator and a convener and an intellectual partner when we can,” she said. “I think the might of the United States government is not only one-way. It’s two-way, it’s how do you approach, how do you bring ideas together, how do you find initiatives that make sense?”

Pandith said her responsibilities, however, will not include acting as the special envoy to the OIC, and it is not clear if the Obama administration will appoint one.

Ihsanoglu also urged President Obama to keep promises made in his Cairo speech to join with the OIC to fight polio and to expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health. He noted that modernization and moderation are inexorably linked.