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Last Updated: Monday, 17 July 2006, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
How Washington speaks to Muslims
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

US Congress at night
In the dark: Does Washington underestimate Muslims?
In the midst of a war in Iraq and domestic fear of Islamist-inspired terrorism - how should western governments approach their Muslim minorities and the Arab world?

Perhaps a good place to start is to listen to the views of top lobbyist Hady Amr. He was probably the highest ranking Arab-Muslim American in the Clinton Administration - and has spent his years since trying to work out how the US government and Muslims talk to each other.

Last week, the Lebanese-born policy analyst came to London to speak to the City Circle, an influential London-based organisation which promotes the development of a distinctive British Muslim identity.

The big issue for Muslims in the western world, he says, is not whether they should engage in the political process - but how quickly they can organise.

Hady Amr
Western governments need to go into the most conservative communities they can stomach if they are going to find ways of building bridges
Hady Amr

"The American political system is like a big rugby pitch. You don't just have two teams playing out there, you have 100 teams. If there are all these teams out there on the pitch, and you're sitting on the sidelines smoking your water pipe, you're not going to get anywhere. The other teams have been working out at the gym."

At the heart of the question of how much political influence Muslims can exert are the hard numbers.

Historically Europe has seen generally low levels of political participation. It's higher in the US however.

Muslims in the US tend to be more educated than their European co-religionists, with six out of 10 having a college degree.

More than 80% are registered to vote and in surveys they register high levels of participation in civic life, such as through volunteering in local schools.

1996: 56% for Clinton
2000: 46% for Bush
2004: 63% for Kerry (Arab Americans)
2004: 76% for Kerry (all Muslims)
Source: Project MAPS, Zogby
The past decade has also seen Muslims in the US tend to follow the national political mood in presidential elections. They voted Clinton and then marginally backed Bush over Gore. However, in 2004, they tended to back the eventual loser John Kerry.

When you combine all these facts and figures, says Hady Amr, it should tell Washington policy makers a lot about a constituency they have failed to keep on side.

"What the numbers tell me is that Arab Muslims were pretty much like any other American, until 2004," he says.

"You don't see massive disparities where they vote en masse for Democrats or Republicans. It's only in 2004 that things change and that is very much down to the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act [the major piece of post-9/11 anti-terrorism legislation].

"On the one hand you have a community that is integrated, or integrating, very well into American life, but ... highly critical of foreign policy. These are people who are happy to be part and parcel of American and feel very comfortable with it - except on one big issue."

Middle East polling

Since leaving administration life, Hady has conducted exhaustive focus groups and polling through the Arab world to try to work out exactly what people think of America.

A protester burning the US flag in the Palestinian territories
Flag burning: Dramatic but not representative
He has found enormous levels of respect in the Arab world for the US education system and what the nation does in science and technology. But people report mixed feelings about American democracy and have the expected critical view of its foreign policy.

Hady Amr argues that all of the data from inside America and across the Arab world points to a missing link between Muslims and the West, rather than the so-called clash of civilisations and the regular scenes of flag burning that we see on the television screens.

"What do these figures mean? Do they mean that these people [Arabs in the Arab world] are schizophrenic about America? No, it means there are people in the Muslim world who are quite sophisticated in what they like and dislike about America."

The big problem, says Hady Amr, is Iraq, where he believes there will be "no happy ending". So what are the remedies?

You have to get these people to understand who we are and what we stand for
He says there has to be a long-hard look by western governments over who they really talk to.

"After 9/11 there was this refrain in America that we needed to reach out to 'moderate Muslims' because they would be our allies against extremism. I think this is wrong," says Hady Amr.

"You cannot of course go start a casual dialogue with people who use violence. But I think that [western governments] need to go into the most conservative communities they can stomach if they are going to find ways of building bridges.

"You have to get these people to understand who we are and what we stand for. Giving $100m to your friends does not necessarily help because they are your friends already.

"What are our fundamental western values? Pluralism and dialogue. Anyone who has worked in politics knows that the quickest way to alienate people is to not invite them to dinner.

"Extremists will always be extremists because when you hate and are active in that hate, you will continue to be so, no matter what the evidence the world presents.

"But if we can pull the rug from beneath the likes of al-Qaeda, those who cheered and said that America had it coming on 9/11, well, they may be swayed. But it's going to be tough."

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