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THE days following 9/11 saw a massive outpouring of sympathy and support across the world for the United States. In Malaysia, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited the US embassy, personally signed the condolence book and went out of his way to reassure Americans in Malaysia that they were safe.

People of all backgrounds thronged the gates of the US embassy to offer flowers and condolences.

Eight years on, much of that sympathy and support has evaporated.

There is no doubt that the eight years of the Bush administration will rank as among America’s worst years abroad.

A number of recent global surveys indicate that the US is disliked in many countries. Fortunately, the American people have made amends this time around by electing a different kind of president.

President Barack Obama seems to represent a gentler, kinder America, an America that is more in tune with the values upon which it was founded.

Obama also clearly understands that an America that is isolated and despised in the world is an America that is vulnerable, especially given the present economic crisis.

Wisely, Obama is now endeavouring to rebuild bridges with the rest of the world, including the Muslim community. He has ordered the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo which had become the very symbol of all that was wrong with America’s war on terror.

In his interview with al-Arabiya (the first of his presidency), he promised that America would start by listening to the Muslim world rather than begin by dictating to them. He signalled an openness to sit and talk to both friends and adversaries alike. He appears to be more even-handed on the issue of Palestine.

In Turkey recently, he emphatically declared that America’s relationship with the Muslim world would not be defined solely by the war on terrorism. He also said that “the United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslimmajority country. I know because I am one of them.”

These are all good signs which have been warmly welcomed across most of the Muslim world. Indeed, there is a certain air of excitement that is fresh, encouraging and hopeful.

Of course, nice words alone will not be sufficient. New presidents (as well as prime ministers) are known to make great promises and pronouncements.

The Muslim world will want to see if America will really listen to their legitimate concerns and whether it can sincerely attend to their grievances.

Nevertheless, for the first time in a long time there is now a president who appears to genuinely want to construct a foreign policy based on respect and cooperation instead of force.

This opens up new possibilities and opportunities to move forward on some of the issues that have bedeviled relations between America and the Muslim world, including Palestine.

There are also strategic opportunities to work together to improve trade and investment and to enhance educational, scientific and technological exchanges – all desperately needed to help overcome the social and economic stagnation that plagues a number of countries in the Muslim world.

Of course, the cynics will argue that Obama has no choice but to seek dialogue instead of confrontation given that America is hobbled economically and weary after more than seven years of war. America may be humbled but it is far from defeated. Now is the time for real engagement, not cynicism.

It is imperative therefore that the Muslim world responds with more than just warm expressions of approval. They have as much to gain, or lose, from this as the Americans.

Terrorism will invariably remain a high priority in the dialogue between America and the Muslim world.

The terrorists seek to make it a religious battle; Obama sees it simply as a security issue that must be dealt with in an appropriate manner without hype or hyperbole and without condemning nations and civilisations.

It is clear that terrorism now poses as serious a threat to Muslim countries as it does to America. For example, there are significant concerns that Pakistan may have already begun an irreversible slide into anarchy as a consequence of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and Indonesia have also felt the sting of terrorism. Indeed, Muslims have been by far the main victims of terror ism. Concerns have also been expressed about the rise of “Islamophobia.” The best way to ensure that Islamophobia does not take root is by working together with the US and others to ensure that the legitimate interests of both sides are protected and real threats and injustices effectively dealt with.

Malaysia can play a useful role in promoting this dialogue between the Islamic world and the United States. We should strongly support Obama’s overtures and encourage our friends in the OIC to engage the US on the whole range of issues affecting the Muslim world.

In this context, Malaysia should immediately upgrade its own relations with the United States in a clear and measured way. For a start, we can appoint an ambassador to Washington with real political clout, credibility and connections to represent us. We need a strong and effective voice in Washington at this important time.

Diplomatically Speaking, The Star (M)