Muslim world & US

Published November 10, 2020

AS the page turns on the Trump era, many will be waiting to see how the incoming president Joe Biden will deal with the Muslim world, as well as followers of Islam within America. As it stands, Mr Biden has been saying all the right things, that he wants to be a unifier, that he will undo Mr Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ — which placed curbs on citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US — “on day one” of his presidency. This may well be possible domestically, but more complicated will be Mr Biden’s attempts to alter Trump-era US policies regarding Muslim states and communities across the world.

Perhaps his most challenging foreign policy issues — at least within the Muslim world — will be the Iran and Arab-Israeli files. Mr Trump had ripped up the painstakingly reached Iran nuclear deal in 2018, invited global opprobrium, and put Washington and Tehran on a collision course with the assassination of senior Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Therefore, Mr Biden will have his work cut out for him where re-engaging the Islamic Republic is concerned, primarily because currently very few who matter in Tehran are willing to trust the US.

President Hassan Rouhani greeted the Biden victory with guarded optimism, saying the US now had an opportunity to “compensate for its previous mistakes”. Regarding the Palestine issue, the Trump White House jettisoned all pretence of impartiality by recognising occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as recognising Tel Aviv’s illegal occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Mr Biden is also deeply pro-Israel, but has said he wants to open channels with the Palestinians, channels that the Arab side closed after Mr Trump’s Jerusalem stunt.

Beyond the Middle East, the world will wait to see if the Biden administration will address the Kashmir issue. To be fair, Mr Trump had offered several times to mediate the dispute, but such offers did not get off the ground. Mr Biden has said on the campaign trail that he would “raise the issue of Kashmir” with India. The months ahead will show if this promise will be met. And of course Pakistan will also look forward to positive engagement with the president-elect, who should hopefully bring a more balanced approach to South Asia.

The fact is that Mr Biden’s election is a return to the status quo where the American foreign policy establishment is concerned. It should be remembered that Barack Obama had said all the right things during his 2009 speech in Cairo addressed to the Muslim world. However, it was under Mr Obama’s watch that wars involving the US in Syria, Libya and Yemen were launched. Joe Biden will therefore have to demonstrate that the American establishment has learned lessons from these misadventures, and wants to engage the Muslim world with respect for sovereignty and the popular will within these states.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2020

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