Suspicion Seen As Hurdle to Relations Between US and African Muslims

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - A new Congressionally sanctioned report recommends that the United States engage more with Africa's 300 million Muslims, but a political analyst here says such a move will only succeed if it focuses on easing suspicion between the U.S. and Muslims.

"Any American initiative for Muslims must be under the control of Muslim organizations so that the Muslims are not suspicious of American intentions," said Akasha Alsayeed Akasha, a Nairobi-based Sudanese scholar.

The 170-page report prepared by a task force convened by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) proposed a comprehensive U.S. policy towards Africa focusing on five strategic areas - terrorism, armed conflicts, oil, HIV/AIDS and global trade.

The report said improved relations between U.S. and Muslims in Africa would advance U.S. interests in Africa, and it recommended an approach emphasizing engagement with Muslims representing the full spectrum of opinion, with special attention to communities' vulnerabilities.

This attention should involve: expanding education opportunities for Muslims; pressurizing the government of Saudi Arabia to regulate the flow of funds from Saudi charities to madrassas (Islamic schools) in Africa; and increasing diplomatic engagement with Muslim leaders, with special priority given to northern Nigeria and Muslim coastal communities in Kenya and Tanzania.

The report said the U.S. should expand humanitarian and development assistance to Muslim communities, and argued that the involvement of U.S. forces in U.N. peacekeeping missions in African countries with large Muslim population would help improve relations.

Akasha said the key way to win Muslims over was to focus on education and information.

The U.S. would gain much by investing in those two areas, although such investment should be under the direct control of Muslims to erase any suspicions about Americans' motives.

For example, investment in media should be sensitive to the face that most Muslims in Africa "view the press as being anti-Muslim."

As a result, African Muslims tend to prefer reading, listening and watching "information that has been prepared by Muslims," Akasha said.

The CSIS report said the U.S. should have a multi-year, continent-wide Muslim outreach initiative involving new additional funding of at least $200 million a year.

"With a Muslim population of well over 300 million, Africa provides a large pool for recruitment by Muslim extremists and, at the same time, provides a unique opportunity for the United States to engage the Muslim world."

Washington should simultaneously pursue a larger counter-terrorist strategy in the region, including efforts to limit small-arms trafficking; improve the collection of intelligence, particularly through the use of agents; train and supply African security, military and peace-keeping forces; and raise the level of U.S. military readiness in the region.

The report also called for an "early warning" strategy, with the State Department training embassy staff in Africa to develop the skills necessary to prevent and address long-term crises through diplomacy and effective peace intervention.

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