Lawmakers Hope To Improve U.S.-Muslim Relations

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. Albright will offer insight as part of a Capitol Hill hearing on "Engaging with Muslim Communities around the World." The former Clinton official talks more about the proceedings and shares her thoughts on strengthening U.S.-Muslim relations.

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KORVA COLEMAN, host:

I'm Korva Coleman, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, fear of crime and large unemployment has led many South Africans to flee their country. But what does this mean for that country's future? We'll talk to three South Africans living in the U.S. That's next.

We begin this week's international briefing by examining how the United States is seen by Muslim countries. To discuss this, I'm pleased to welcome former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She is the lead guest today at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman John Kerry wants to discuss how perceptions of the United States are shaped in Muslim countries and what our nation should do to work more closely with Muslim nations. Secretary Albright, welcome to our program.

Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former U.S. Secretary of State): Great to be with you, Korva. Thank you.

COLEMAN: Perhaps the most obvious question is this: The United States has tens of thousands of troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. entered Iraq, began a war based on incorrect information, and how does that affect Muslim nations' view of the United States?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, it, I think, is very damaging, frankly, because the war really did start under - certainly in Iraq under false premises. In Afghanistan, it's a little bit different because we do know that the people who hit us on 9/11 came out of Afghanistan, and so that is not a war that was a war of choice but I think one of necessity. But it does effect us generally when we are fighting wars in Muslim lands, and it exacerbates a very complicated issue already.

COLEMAN: Is the view(ph) a problem?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think it is a problem. You know, the bottom line is is that Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and throughout the world. I think we don't understand Islam very well. I believe that most Americans don't understand the basic tenets of the religion, and there is a lot of kind of co-definition of Islam with terrorism when mostly Muslims are peaceful and the basic tenets of the religion are peaceful. So, I think it does create an additional misunderstanding about a major religion of the world.

COLEMAN: Mr. Obama and some members of Congress are very keen to change this perception of the United States, and they're keen to do it quickly. Why is the speed important?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think that with the election of President Obama, there are many changes that are out there and a different image of the United States. According to a lot of polling data - it has been interesting. I've been working with the PEW Charitable Trust on their polling data, and over the years, we have tracked increasing hostility of the Muslims towards the United States. And yet, what we've also tracked is a great desire for change that President Obama's bringing in, an expectation about him. So, I think the fact that he could in his inaugural address immediately call for a different relationship with the Muslim world - and by the word - even mentioning the word Muslim in an inaugural address was a big deal. I think it is important to show that the Obama administration is going to take a different view.

COLEMAN: Here's the key question. How do we do this?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, it's - first of all, it's not easy. I think we need to understand that. But I think there are any number of ways, some on an official level in terms of not just having monologues from each side but trying really to get involved in dialogues with leaders of Muslim nations. I think also we need very much to work with our own American Muslim population that I think can help us in developing understanding. I think we need to study more about Islam.

We do need to involve religious leaders. I think that's the part that's in some way hard for Americans because we believe in separation of church and state. But I do believe that religious leaders can help in terms of talking to each other and helping us understand the differences.

COLEMAN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Korva Coleman. I'm speaking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about how the United States can engage Muslim nations.

Secretary Albright, for many Muslim countries, America's strong support for Israel is a stumbling block, and they see the United States having a policy toward Israel that is biased against Palestinians. And how come the Obama administration demonstrate that it is serious about helping solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think they've already done that. First of all, by making clear that it's a priority issue, that they understand the importance of our relationship with Israel but also have talked about the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, and then by naming Senator George Mitchell immediately to be the envoy to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So it's at the highest level of President Obama's agenda, and I think is something that will be very much a part of his concerns as this goes forward.

COLEMAN: I understand that the State Department is sending an envoy to meet with a Syrian diplomat today and that Senator Kerry may travel to Syria in the near future. Do you see this as a good step toward warming relations?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, Senator Kerry has been there, and so was Chairman Howard Berman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and some other members of Congress recently in order to have conversations with President al-Assad of Syria to see whether there were any changes.

Syria has played a not always helpful role in terms of some of the issues to do with Iraq and making clear that the border is not a completely porous border, so it would be important to have a different relationship with Syria. Their support for Hezbollah has been a problem, and so there are issues there. But I do - I also read that in fact there is going to be a meeting of a Syrian representative with an American one, and I think that's an important step forward.

COLEMAN: President Obama gave a lengthy interview to the Arab network, Al-Arabiya, just a few days after he took office, and he talked about his view of the Muslim world and what he'd like to do to improve relations. And here's what he said about engaging Muslim countries.

(Soundbite of interview)

President BARACK OBAMA: If we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.

COLEMAN: What do you think significant progress means?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, what I think is so interesting in the way President Obama stated that and shows his understanding and sensitivity to everything right off it is talking about mutual respect and mutual interest. I think, in fact, and as I mentioned earlier, a dialogue of really understanding. I think that what he is getting at and I think will help is the fact that there will be capabilities of putting things on the table and talking about things honestly. I think that's what he's talking about.

And then the statement in his inaugural address about that we are prepared to have an open hand if people unclench their fists. So he is really pushing a message of I'm going to listen to you, listen to me. It will make a big difference in terms of general relationships, not just in Iraq or Afghanistan but across the board in terms of how we can deal with these issues together.

COLEMAN: Mr. Obama says he plans to visit the capital of a Muslim nation. It's not clear when he will do that. But why is such a visit important?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Because I think that, again, there is so much symbolism involved in what an American president does, and I think we're all totally - to use a vernacular - blown away by the fact that we have President Obama who is such a perfect messenger for the issues that we're dealing with now in the 21st century. And he has experienced, having lived in Indonesia, which is the largest - a country with the largest Muslim population, that he is symbolically going to say, I'm going to come visit, I'm going to come talk. He hasn't chosen the country where he's going to do this. But again, I think it's part of his whole approach of reaching out and showing respect.

COLEMAN: An organization you belong to, the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project, recently reported on the state of U.S.-Muslim relations. What did the report recommend?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, what it recommended was, first of all, an importance of dealing with the U.S.-Muslim issues through diplomacy. It goes back a little bit to the first question you asked me, instead of a military approach that we use a diplomatic approach, that we also look at what can be done about governance issues within Muslim countries themselves so that in fact there is a greater help in terms of education, social issues and see what the issues are. Also, that we do what we can to help employment in those countries...

COLEMAN: So there is an economic interest.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: There is an economic interest because the truth is, we know that when especially young people don't have a way of making a living, it makes it much more likely that they will take to the streets. And then also talk much more about a dialogue generally. So, it is a peaceful and very action-oriented agenda that would allow us to have a plan for talking to Muslims across the board. I have a little bit of a hard time always thinking about the Muslim world.

COLEMAN: How should we say this?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, there's no way to quickly describe it, which is why we all fall into that rubric, but it's very diverse. There is not a monolithic aspect to it. And so I think we also, in that report, talked about the importance of looking at countries individually to see what our relationship with them should be. But mostly, it is an issue about dealing with things diplomatically and looking at the causes of the problems.

COLEMAN: Do you see success?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I certainly see a huge beginning with President Obama and his whole approach to things. And so I do think that - I do hope for success.

COLEMAN: It's going to be a difficult thing to balance, and there are a lot of people who may not agree, who think that this is the wrong approach. Are you sanguine?

Ms. ALBRIGHT: I am sanguine, but we have to talk to our own people. And I think that's the important part about the hearings today is that there will be different views expressed. This is the beginning of a process. And the American public clearly, I think, needs to be educated about Islam, about our relationships and what the role of the United States should be.

COLEMAN: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is the lead panelist at today's Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing on engaging with Muslim communities around the world. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. And Madam Secretary, thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. ALBRIGHT: Thank you, Korva.

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Correction Feb. 26, 2009

In some broadcasts, we said that "Sen. Kerry may go [to Syria] in the near future." In fact, he has already returned from Syria.

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