Obama’s gestures towards the Muslim world

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Obama’s gestures towards the Muslim world

Aref Assaf

Some would argue that it has been a long time for the Muslim world to hear these words: “There is no reason why we cannot rebuild the same respect and the same partnership with the Islamic world that America had 20 or 30 years ago.” These words were recently spoken by President Obama to the Al Arabiya TV in his first full interview addressing the Arab and Muslim world.

At the same time, Obama emphasized that he wants to convey to Americans that the Islamic world consists of human beings with the same dream of a better life for themselves and their children as they have. This he experienced as a child in Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood. In itself, Obama’s January 28th interview with Al Arabiya was a highly symbolic event. But this “media charm offensive” marks not only a new political style but also a definitive break with the simplistic dualism and friend-enemy rhetoric of the Bush era.

The truth of the matter is that nearly every decision made by the Bush administration was defended with the paradigm of the “global war against terrorism”. This was especially true when its actions – such as the “Guantánamo system” – violated international law.

By redefining this indifferent “war against terror”, Obama and his team are showing their readiness to correct this monumental mistake.

This development is of central importance to relations between the West and the Islamic world because the complexity of the political realities and alliances in the Middle East clearly contradicts the demagogic simplification embodied by the rallying cry that is the “global war against terrorism”.

It is now evident that the one-dimensional perspective of the Bush administration has provided fertile ground for the development of Islamist terrorism into a global threat – not to mention the all too familiar East-West irritations and the nefarious rituals of mutual demonization.

Most notably the Iraq War, which is generally known to have been the cornerstone of neoconservative plans for a “revolutionary democratization” of the Near and Middle East, has turned out to be a colossal failure. It has seriously damaged the authority and moral credibility of the only remaining world superpower.

The war was wrong not least because it weakened moderate forces in Islamic countries and ultimately strengthened anti-Western forces.

In contrast to the policymakers in the Bush administration, Obama demonstrates the tactfulness that is so vital to foreign policy and that his predecessors completely lacked, and thus seems to have recognized the extremely potent symbolism and high mobilization power of the Middle East conflict: the path to peace in the Middle East leads not through Baghdad, but Jerusalem.

The appointment of the experienced “honest broker” George Mitchell as Middle East envoy looks promising in view of the strategic goal of attaining a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

Further evidence of his sense of reality and the change in priorities is the new US president’s basic willingness to speak with relevant players and “rogue states”. “If countries such as Iran are ready to unclench their fists, they can expect our outstretched hand”.

The new US president would like to approach the crises in the “greater Middle East” systematically with an active and credible diplomacy that employs “all instruments of US power”. This too is further evidence of a definitive break with the Bush era.

Obama has a real chance to give new impetus to relations with the Islamic world as long as his moral authority, the new realism in the White House, and, not least, his proclaimed commitment to finding a solution to the core conflict in the Middle East persists.

If he is clever enough to take advantage of this opportunity and to win over moderate Muslims as allies, then hard times may come for the representatives of the “axis of resistance” and those who refuse to cooperate in the Islamic crisis region.

As the 2007 Gallup World Poll found, both the mainstream Muslim majority and a minority of potential extremists desire normal relations with the West — coexistence, not conflict. Most value America’s basic principles and the ideals of self-determination, freedoms, democracy and human rights. At the same time, Obama and the US face a Muslim world in which many have deep fears and grievances, fear of Western intervention, invasion and domination, and the belief that the West, in particular, the US, uses a double standard in its promotion of democracy and human rights.

As Obama may consider a major speech in Muslim country in the next couple of months and restore America’s global image, moral standing and leadership and further weaken the extremists, he must listen to — not necessarily concur with — and not dictate to but also aspire to work at nongovernmental levels with mainstream Muslim organizations in managing these concerns.

Aref Assaf, Ph.D., President, American Arab Forum

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