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A fair number of liberals swooning over President Barack Obama’s recent speechmaking are also impressed by his rhetorical gestures and overtures to Arabs and Muslims, first articulated during his inaugural address and reiterated on a major Arabic-language news channel.
The sharp divergence in tone and tenor from Bush’s rhetoric is certainly welcome after eight years of hubris and arrogance.
Quoting from a New York Times article today:
“In the interview, which was taped on Monday night and broadcast throughout the Muslim world on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said it was his job ‘to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy.’
He added that ‘we sometimes make mistakes,’ but said that America was not born as a colonial power and that he hoped for a restoration of ‘the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.’”
But while the best orators can massage reality through rhetoric, rhetoric cannot reshape reality when there is a vast, yawning chasm between mellifluous words and murderous weapons.
Obama’s silence—and, ultimately, lame endorsement—of Israel’s murder of hundreds of civilians is an example of such a chasm. It is one that will not easily exit the collective memory of the Muslim world by dint of a few pretty pronouncements.
Was it a “mistake” to stand by Israel as it ruthlessly and deliberately destroyed and deracinated Palestinian neighborhoods in a ghastly display of cheerful brutality? Obama certainly didn’t think so, as he told State Department employees. He obligatorily invoked the usual AIPAC-induced buzzwords that exude a perverse “blame the victim” vibe, championing Israel’s “right to defend itself” as it left mountains of corpses in the wake of its massive attack of hospitals, depots, journalists, and human rights infrastructure. He even spared a moment to demand that Hamas recognize Israel’s legitimacy as it illegitimately rampaged through Gaza, and reminded us all of Israel’s right to exist.
But was Israel’s “right to exist” ever threatened by unguided rockets that failed to kill more than three or four civilians while Israel itself was swiftly slaughtering five or six hundred innocents? Should Obama have not rather concerned himself with the “right to exist” of a people–-a stateless, homeless, people–-who were being flattened inside their refugee camps as he was lecturing?
Obama’s decision to emphasize the absurd instead of the obvious was very revealing. It was a message that Muslim life is expendable. It was a message that Muslims can be killed en masse. And it was a message the Muslim world heard loudly.
If one hundred Palestinian corpses are placed next to one Israeli corpse, the “new” White House informed Muslims through Obama’s messaging, its scales of sympathy will still not tip in their favor. They will be addressed tersely only to demand that they recognize their oppressor’s right to exist.
This is akin to yelling into the ear of a rape victim during an assault that she must recognize the rights of her rapist. It is an insult with few parallels–but many echoes.
Can a relationship based on “respect and partnership” be established in this context? Obama silently acceded to—and then effectively endorsed—wanton violence in which more than half the victims were civilians, extended his sympathy first and foremost to the victimizers, and only secondarily, half-heartedly, grudgingly, to the victims.
Obama’s fundamental failure to confront Israel’s utter disregard for Muslim life is a red line that cannot be elided by fine speechmaking. Any “good faith” effort he attempts in the Islamic sphere will melt like hot wax under the burning impact of his failure to confront the Palestinian question honestly.
This was made painfully clear when Obama dispatched George Mitchell to the Middle East to cope with the aftermath of the Gaza invasion and make some initial steps toward something resembling peace.
On its face, the move was reasonable: Mitchell is a serious and hardened diplomat. The only problem with this political maneuver is that Israel, euphoric from its latest round of killing, is about to empower hard-right politicians who view any peace process with hatred and contempt. Even though the war was launched by what passes for the “center-left” in Israel—Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni—this sector will not be the main beneficiary of its own blood-soaked policies.
Instead, the fascist politician Avigdor Liberman, who pines for the ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Arabs, and the Likudnik Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposes any peace moves, are expected to reap the most fruit in the upcoming elections. The very idea that such men have the slightest interest in achieving peace is a pungent mixture of the perverse and the peculiar.
The ascendance of Israel’s right in a war launched by its left should serve as a cautionary reminder that, sometimes, an action can have unforeseen consequences. The same can be said of inaction: it cannot always be covered up in fine phrases or even in well-meaning actions that come too little, too late. Obama is going to have to do more than utter pretty words and dutifully dispatch diplomats if he genuinely expects the United States to achieve cordial relations with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
It is a macabre fact that while Obama now speaks warm words about the prospects of future relations with Muslims, the Israelis viewed his very ascension as a perfect opportunity to go “berserk” (as the operation was approvingly described in Israel) against Muslims-–with the implicit understanding that the madness will, of course, pause in time for the inaugural ceremony, and be followed by zero repercussions for the aggressors.
No “respect or partnership” with Muslims can be based upon this kind of grotesque, quasi-coordinated humiliation.
If Obama is at all serious about his overture, he will have to confront old shibboleths and entrenched interests—including the pro-Israeli lobby. Of course, that is no easy task, and it is tempting to ignore for two reasons.
First, no other vested interest surpasses in obscenity or audacity this largely unchallenged outfit. Its attempts to portray an occupying power as the victim of the very people it has occupied, dispossessed, and corralled into the world’s largest concentration camp is strange. That this reverse-reality trick is performed by invoking a persecution from another time and place is even stranger–-a feat of emotional extortion without equal.
Indeed, as Israeli shells were splattering Palestinian skulls on the walls of destroyed homes, one indignant American Jewish writer opined in a British newspaper that the pressing problem of the hour was an upsurge of “the purest antisemitism since the Nazi era.”
Second, the Muslim world is, unlike Israel and its American lobbying arm, weak. In fact, it is in shameful disarray. The collective failure of the Arabs and the Muslims to do more than posture, prattle, and piss in the wind during the demolition of Gaza will be recorded-–and has already been recorded in the minds of many of its followers–as one of the lowest points in the 1,400-year history of Muslim civilization.
Nonetheless, there are sound geo-strategic reasons for America to make good with a quarter of humanity. If Obama is committed to achieving that end, he should know that Muslims are neither stupid nor naive: cooing while killing will work no better than the last eight years of cackling while killing.
If President Obama wishes to repair relations with the Muslim world and help isolate Islamic extremists, he is going to have to reign in extremists who would already be isolated but for America’s enabling of them. Israel in “berserk” mode tops that list.
M. JUNAID LEVESQUE-ALAM blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent and writes about American Muslim identity for WireTap magazine. He works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in NYC and can be reached at: junaidalam1 AT gmail.com.