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'Complex and multifaceted': former policymaker talks US policies on Islam


Peter Mandaville, professor of international affairs at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, speaks Oct. 18 in the Indiana Memorial Union. Mandaville spoke about the country's tendency to use Islam as a political tool. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

No presidential administration in modern history has had a perfect strategy for dealing with the Islamic world, George Mason University professor Peter Mandaville said.

Mandaville spoke Thursday in the Indiana Memorial Union about the country’s tendency to use Islam as a political tool. In addition to a scholarly career, he also wrote policy for the U.S. Department of State under the Obama Administration and helped shape the U.S. response to the Arab Spring.

Both Democrat and Republican administrations have gone to unnecessary extremes when dealing with the Islamic world, Mandaville said. It’s happened on both sides of the political spectrum, both with vilifying Muslims and trying to use them as model citizens.

“The story of the relationship between Islam and U.S. foreign policy is complex and multifaceted,” Mandaville said.

The fear-based rhetoric of the last 20 years can often make it seem otherwise, but Islam wasn’t always seen as a threat to the United States, Mandaville said. In fact, the Islamic world was seen as an ally against the Soviets during the Cold War.

College students, many of whom who were born in the years surrounding 9/11, may not know about these older strategies, Mandaville said. Their understanding of the issue could be limited to the post-9/11 years and the rise of the Islamic State. 

Senior Elijah Heath said he was excited to learn more about the history of Islam and U.S. relations. He came to the talk as part of his class on Islamic feminism. 

Heath, who is Jewish, became interested in Islam when he lived in Jerusalem, he said. After he made friends with Palestinians and learned more about the culture, he decided to start reading the Quran.

“It’s always great for me to hear Islam in a positive connotation,” he said.

Political science professor Abdulkader Sinno, who helped organize the event, said he hoped it would improve students’ understanding of the history between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

“It’s good to build that basic knowledge and educate our students, who will become decision-makers,” Sinno said.

Mandaville told the audience about his own efforts to change policy during his time in the Department of State. He said he noticed unusual strategies in the way former President Obama wanted to work with the Muslim world.

Obama’s administration developed programs specifically for Muslim outreach and even appointed a special representative to Muslim communities. 

To Mandaville, this seemed like an odd choice. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and he knew they don’t all experience religion or culture the same way.

Plus, Mandaville said categorizing Muslims by religion instead of their country perpetuated the belief held by Osama Bin Laden and Islamist groups who preach that Muslim identity is more important than nationality. 

The administration wasn’t grouping together every Christian because of their religion, and Mandaville said Muslims deserve the same respect.

“You correct that by treating them the same way that you treat everyone else,” Mandaville said. “This is utterly, utterly bizarre.” 

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