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Obama must reboot relationship with Muslims

By Emad Shahin, Special to CNN
Men at a Cairo coffee shop watch U.S. President Barack Obama deliver his speech to the Muslim world in June 2009.
Men at a Cairo coffee shop watch U.S. President Barack Obama deliver his speech to the Muslim world in June 2009.
  • Emad Shahin says Obama to be commended in Bin Laden's death, but act was marred
  • He says it violated Pakistan sovereignty; sea burial affront to Muslims; deepens suspicions of Obama
  • Those rejoicing forget most Muslims denounced 9-11; many innocents killed in resulting wars
  • Shahin: Obama must turn page with peaceful Muslims; build ties promised in Cairo speech

Editor's note:Emad Shahin is the Henry R. Luce associate professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

(CNN) -- The death of Osama bin Laden presents an opportunity to reflect upon a genuine end to the cycle of "suspicion and discord" that President Barack Obama called for in his remarkable speech in Cairo in June of 2009. It should truly mark the "new beginning" that he promised Muslims around the world when he took office and raised great expectations in the Muslim world that this U.S. administration would be different from his predecessor's.

Bin Laden and al Qaeda did not represent Islam or Muslims. These extremists exploited tensions in a "small but potent minority of Muslims," as the president so correctly acknowledged. Yet, time and again the United States, even with the influence of Obama's sensitivity and sensibility, has unnecessarily humiliated Muslims, even though the majority of Muslims seem to be on the side of America in its opposition to terrorism.

From a military standpoint, the operation against bin Laden was brilliant, almost perfect, and President Obama is to be highly commended for his decisive leadership. A few exceptions, however, mar this historic moment.

First, violating the sovereignty of a friendly country in disregard of international laws and engaging in an extra-legal assassination in an "operation to kill" is hardly a precedent that should be followed by a country so dedicated to the rule of law.

Second, disposing of the body at sea was an ill-conceived decision, notwithstanding the complexity of the alternatives. The head of Al-Azhar mosque described it as "an affront to religious and human values." Claims that the burial was in accordance with Muslim customs are simply wrong.

While this error may not equate with the decision by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to execute Saddam Hussein on the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, the sea burial cannot help deepening the cycle of suspicion and discord Obama said must end.

Third, those rejoicing over the death of one person, regardless of the heinousness of his crimes, need to recall that Muslims almost universally condemned the 9/11 attacks. They never considered bin Laden's actions to be in line with the teachings of the Quran.

Yet many thousands of Muslim civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere fell victim to America's retaliation and its global war against terrorism. "Collateral damage" is damage nonetheless.

The roles of bin Laden and al Qaeda have been greatly diminished over the past few years. The killing of bin Laden and dumping of his body in the ocean will almost certainly reignite thoughts and threats of violence against the U.S. and the West in the minds of those who view America as the enemy.

While asserting that America is not at war with Islam, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated their unwavering resolve to continue the fight. While this is understandable, the way to continue this fight should not be through more violence, extensive use of drones and the unnecessary killing of civilians.

U.S. military operations are not likely to neutralize the terrorist threat. It would be more effective to address the root causes of terrorism, abandon hegemonic hubris and implement more even-handed policies, keeping in mind that the American military presence is often interpreted as occupation.

Ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and promoting a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East would be more effective ways to address violence against the United States.

The end of bin Laden should represent the very defining moment not only for the Obama administration but for improved future relations between the United States and the Muslim peoples, which Obama so courageously called for in Cairo.

Bin Laden, al Qaeda and their violent methods, though not condoned by most Muslims, represented a phase in which some Muslims felt underrepresented internationally, besieged and embattled.

Now, the Muslim world is changing rapidly as it attempts to chart a new course of freedom and democracy, empowered through peaceful and nonviolent means and people power. To respond with a spirit of reciprocity, U.S. foreign policy needs to undertake a meaningfully similar change.

The United States needs to communicate more clearly that, in a future Muslim landscape, it will not be a bearer of violence and death.

Instead, it can be the bearer of comprehensive peace, economic development, hope and opportunity, justice and human rights the rest of the free world looks to America to represent, and was so eloquently stated by the president to the cheering Cairo throng and Muslim world.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Emad Shahin.

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