By Jocelyne Cesari
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/05/2011
The Marshall plan was a decisive tool for the US and its allies to rebuild Europe after the second world war. The economic and political conditions now are different to what they were back in 1945, of course: the US is not at war with Muslim countries, and the damages of the "war on terror" are not comparable to post-war devastation. It is also improbable that today's fragile US economy can undertake a financial commitment similar to billions offered by the Marshall plan between 1948 and 1951. In these circumstances, financial aid to Muslim countries should differentiate between wealthy states and those in genuine need. It should also request from their rulers accountability and transparency on the use of the funds.
But more than economic aid, the Marshall plan was a communication strategy that emphasised Germany's importance within the community of Western nations and changed its status from enemy to ally through the discursive change with Europe, and especially Germany. This strategy could be replicated within the context of the Arab spring.
Since 9/11, the "war on terror" has dominated international relations and especially the relations between the US and Muslim countries – not only through direct American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also through global monitoring of radical activism. Such a policy has tainted the image of the US among Muslims, even in friendly countries such as Turkey. In a survey published by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2010, only 17% of the population viewed the US favourably.
More recently, in April 2011, Pew research found that 79% of Egyptians hold an unfavourable view of the US. Thus, while the majority of Muslims also reject al-Qaida and global jihad, the current US strategy does not portray its shared interest in defeating global jihad. In fact, over the past decade, Muslims outside and increasingly inside the west doubt the sincerity of the US war on terror and believe it to be a war against Islam.
Such a rift between Muslim populations and the west urges a reconsideration of the current strategy of the war on terror.
The Arab spring is the most efficient antidote to the political strategy of al-Qaida because from Tunis to Cairo, the social revolts had their basis in demands for more freedom, justice and redistribution of power – not jihadi activism. It was the first time, since at least 1967, that political grievances were not phrased in terms of the kind of politicised Islam on which al-Qaida has thrived.
Even Islamist parties are shifting the focus of their political narratives away from Islamic topics, as reflected in the civil platform of the political party, Freedom and Justice, recently created by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is therefore the right timing for the west to send a clear message of support to the fight against autocratic regimes. Harry Truman's words of 1947 strikingly resonate in the current context of uprisings from Syria to Yemen and Libya: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
This discursive shift will mean coming to terms with the "clash of civilisations" discourse that has deeply affected the relationship with Muslim countries. Concretely, it means accepting regimes that may be led by Islamist parties provided they respect democratic principles. Americans and Europeans must insist upon the will of the majority, free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion and freedom from political oppression in relations with the Middle East. Truman insisted that these were principles of "western civilisation"; today, these should be recognised as principles for all nations of the international community and be supported as such.
The obstacles to such a strategy are numerous within countries where radical activism remains an option – and, externally, from states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, which will disapprove of such a realignment of western policy. Moreover, the struggle against radical activism should continue, but the war strategy must be integrated into a broader, more inclusive narrative and diplomatic effort.
It may be realistically argued that such an approach would sacrifice western interests in the name of principles, but others respond that committing to these principles will serve western interests. In his well-received Cairo speech of 2009, Obama called for partnership "based upon mutual interest and mutual respect", emphasising the "truth that America and Islam are not exclusive".
Moreover, Obama highlighted common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and human dignity. A reiteration of these principles could be the building block to implementing such a Marshall plan.