Respect is not enough
Obama’s interview with a Muslim TV channel was eloquent and persuasive. But his silence over Gaza also speaks volumes
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 28 January 2009 20.00 GMT
In his historic interview with the Al-Arabiya TV channel, President Obama’s inclusive and respectful rhetoric towards Muslims attempted an elegant coup de grace to the divisive, insecure and arrogant bravado of the Bush administration. For many Muslims worldwide, however, the sincerity of such honey-coated words will only be legitimized by a responsible and balanced foreign policy that is no longer rooted in selfishness and historical amnesia.
Obama optimistically told the “Muslim world” – if even such a nebulous entity exists – that his “job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people …My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.” Like a skillful and eloquent Cool Hand Luke, Obama calmly exhibited respect, humility, and confidence. He finally achieved his Colin Powell catharsis. He made a decisive and public break with Bush’s diminutive Dirty Harry personality and that administration’s “clash of civilizations” rhetoric by acknowledging the existence of Muslims as valuable partners necessary in traversing the fragile and volatile terrain known as the global “war on terror.”
Perhaps Obama reflected on the shameful legacies of his campaign, where Muslims were actively encouraged to vote and donate for his presidency, but only if they were hidden, maligned and unacknowledged – like the two veiled women whom his staffers removed from a televised Obama rally. At a fundraiser 12 days before the election, I asked a very high-ranking Democrat why Obama kept shunning Muslim Americans. He shot me a knowing look and responded, “You know – it’s only 12 days before the election,” thereby unsubtly and ironically reminding the Muslims present at the gathering about the detrimental electoral “taint” of being associated with our kind.
However, with his presidency and election now secure, Obama now openly welcomes and identifies with these former political kryptonites: “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”
Many Muslims, although initially offended by what they perceived as Obama’s slight towards their community despite their overwhelming support for his presidency, were nonetheless enthusiastic after hearing Obama’s Al-Arabiya interview, which repeatedly stressed respect towards the “Muslim world.” Faisal Ghori, an American Muslim and Principal at Middle East Ventures, a Middle East and North Africa-focused strategy consultancy, echoed the feelings of many by calling it “groundbreaking for the United States in light of the last eight years” and “a step in the right direction.”
Obama’s initial executive order shutting down the draconian Guantanmo Bay facility further signaled the emergence of a rare leader, making good on his promises and taking concentrated efforts at strategically rebuilding and redeeming our globally maligned image.
However, the tragedy of the Gaza crisis still burdens the hearts of many Muslims who decry Obama’s words as hype and empty rhetoric in light of his refusal to directly criticize Israel for its brutal campaign in Gaza that left over 1,300 Palestinians dead.
When dealing with the Muslims, Obama urged: “We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful.” However, his reinforced commitment to Israel – despite the humanitarian crisis and global condemnation surrounding its actions in Gaza – is both polarizing and contentious to Muslims worldwide. When Obama firmly stated: “I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount,” many Muslims lost hope in Obama’s promise – and by extension the desire for a new and “improved” US Middle East foreign policy – due to perceptions of his unconditionally-biased loyalty towards Israel.
As Asilan Ekher, a Turkey journalist chosen as one of the prestigious “Muslim leaders of tomorrow” programme, told me: “If Obama really wanted to give a friendly message to the Muslim world, he would have definitely found a way to denounce the civilian deaths in Gaza in a diplomatic way, as he must know that it is the most sensitive issue for the majority of Muslims around the world at the moment.”
Noorjahan Ali Boolay, a Thai Muslim from Payap University, concurred: “I have to admit that my hope is high from listening to what Obama said [in the interview] but my heart is full of doubts and fears…. No matter how wrong, bad, or unfair the actions are, Israel will get full support and protection from America.”
For a loquacious man like Obama, who stirringly denounced the terrorist Mumbai attacks and spearheaded an economic advisory team even before taking the oath of office, his relative silence on the Gaza crisis was shameful and surprising.
Moreover, Obama’s rhetoric from the interview implies he will continue the US’s dangerously belligerent offensive in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where pilotless drone aircraft attacks have killed more than 300 people – overwhelmingly civilians – over the past year. Obama promised the US is going to be “decisive in going after terrorist organisations that would kill innocent civilians, that we’re going to do so on our terms, and we’re going to do so respecting the rule of law.”
However, Obama must note that “our terms,” which are unnecessarily aggressive and unilateral, will not necessarily be welcomed by the beleaguered population of Central Asia, already hostage to eight years of Bush’s reign of unmitigated violence. Even though the US might consider civilian deaths as collateral damage, they inspire despair and anger which can be exploited by reactionaries for their Islamist jihad agenda.
The 30-year failure of such a myopic policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan can easily be witnessed in the blowback of violence and virulent anti-US sentiments espoused by extremists, who are housed in countries ruled by ineffectual and incompetent leaders. The same can be said about Israel and Palestine. Ultimately, Obama declared the “language we use has to be a language of respect … the language we use matters.” So does enlightened diplomacy. Let’s hope Obama ushers in real change by implementing both.