Muslims, both here and abroad, are investing their collective faith in Obama as a modern political Superman who will transform U.S. foreign policy from the abrasive “Us vs. Them” ideology of President Bush to an engaging, constructive dialogue. But as Obama begins to assemble his administration, are Muslims assuming too much about the transformative powers of the president? Certainly among American Muslims the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Specifically, a poll by the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Election (AMT) found that 89 percent of Muslims who voted went for Obama, and that the Muslim turnout in the U.S. elections reached 95 percent, the highest Muslim turnout in U.S. history.
American Muslims’ vote for Obama reflects a repudiation of President Bush and his administration’s relentless stereotyping of Muslims as extremists and terrorists. Obama’s talk of inclusiveness and multi-culturalism, while not specifically naming American Mulsims, has already fulfilled one central wish of the community – to feel included in the political and cultural life of the country (whether the President-elect can fix healthcare or the economy, other pressing issues facing the American Muslim community, we eagerly wait and see, along with the rest of America).
Overseas, however, Muslims are treating Obama with considerable skepticism borne from a fear that once inaugurated, he will be overwhelmed by imperial desire and perpetuate the “War on Terror” rhetoric.
As Souheila Al- Jadda, Peabody award wining journalist and associate producer of Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, explained to me, “Judging from the Arab media outlets, Arabs in the Middle East don’t expect to see much change in policy towards the Middle East, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
There are already some worrying signs that on the key issue of Israel, Obama will be following in the footsteps of his pro-Israeli predecessor. The recent appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s Chief of Staff deflated some optimistic expectations that the new administration would reform their policy. Emanuel is an Israeli American dual citizen, pro Iraq War Democrat, and son of a right wing member of Irgun, a notoriously militant Zionist organization operating from 1931 to 1948 that was responsible for acts of terrorism against the British and Palestinians.
Furthermore, Obama’s selection of Senator Joe Biden as Vice President further cemented this concern, because he once proudly proclaimed, “I am a Zionist” and has repeatedly received an extremely high, pro-Israel rating from AIPAC [American Israeli Political Action Committee.]
However, many others such as Zeba Khan, founder of Muslim-Americans for Obama [www.mafo2008.com], maintain such appointments will not alter Muslims’ positive perception of Obama. Unlike Bush and McCain, Obama has professed a more nuanced and pragmatic relationship with Israel, one that does not automatically tow the hardliner, pro-Likud ideology. Moreover, she notes, “Emanuel has been appointed Chief of Staff not Secretary of State. He will not be Obama’s go-to guy on foreign policy.”
Yet, Obama’s ultimate litmus test in the eyes of the Muslim world revolves around his pressure – or lack there of – in convincing Israel to cease building settlements in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza and vastly improving its prejudicial treatment towards Palestinians.
As acclaimed historian and writer Will Dalrymple told me, “At the heart of U.S. problems with the Muslim world lies America’s complacent attitudes to Israel’s continuing colonization and balkanization of the West Bank.”
However, Obama’s most immediate and potentially delicate diplomacy revolves around two brewing wars in Muslim countries. On the Afghan front, Obama must tackle the festering quagmire paralyzing the North West Frontier Province [NWFP] bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. To most policy and security experts, this geopolitical arena is the most crucial fulcrum in battling terrorism; one that demands our utmost attention and resources.
In Pakistan, it remains to be seen if Obama follows the selfishly myopic policy of administrations past that have recklessly supported Pakistani dictators, such as General Zia al Haq in the ‘80’s and most recently General Pervez Musharaff, to the detriment of pushing Pakistan’s electoral base, which is moderate and tolerant, towards democracy.
Furthermore, Obama’s continued aggressive rhetoric towards Pakistan – one that suggests unilateral air strikes and military incursions threatening Pakistan’s sovereignty – has been met with much criticism and skepticism.
“It is difficult to see how Obama plans to ‘reach out to the people of Pakistan,’ as he has said, if he ignores their democratically elected leaders and if he continues to illegally bomb the FATA tribal territories… which have killed many more civilians than militants, and continue to alienate the people of the region against America and its allies,” states Dalrymple.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, mere hours before Obama’s victory, Afghan President Hamid Karzai claimed yet another U.S. air strike killed almost 40 civilians in a village in southern Kandahar province. Not only do these continued attacks undermine the support of U.S. backed Karzai, they directly increase extremism by conflagrating anti-Western sentiment in the hearts of Afghans mourning lost, innocent lives. Karzai understands this and openly stated, “Therefore, the use of aerial bombing, which often results in civilian casualties and destruction of Afghan life and property, cannot produce tangible results.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s declaration of seeking some semblance of diplomacy with Iran – albeit under severe restrictions – elucidates a clear break from the Bush administration’s policy.
In fact, the perennially controversial and outspoken Iranian President Ahmadenijad sent President-elect Obama a cordial letter stating his election welcomes an expectation that “the unjust actions of the past 60 years will give way to a policy encouraging full rights for all nations, especially the oppressed nations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Naturally, this conciliatory rhetoric is juxtaposed to Ahmadenijad’s many aggressive statements thus failing to assuage fears of a “hostile” Iran. However, in my interviews with Nobel Prize winning Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi and historian Steve Kinzer, author of the best selling All the Shah’s Men, both vehemently state that the majority of Iran’s citizens reject such confrontation and are instead moderate, democratic and pluralistic.
Omid Safi, Professor of Islamic Studies, University of North Carolina, concurs and states Iranian society has changed drastically since the ’79 Revolution, and the United States would benefit from diplomatically engaging Iran’s progressive sectors, academics, the NGO’s, and the moderate youth instead of alienating them with threats of war.
“The overwhelming majority of Iranians want to have dialogue with the United States, and dialogue can only happen if there are two partners willing to talk – and listen,” says Safi.
Obama’s promise of “dialogue” is precisely what makes him the antithesis of Bush’s unilateral “shock and awe” campaign that was so disastrously employed in Iraq. As Sumbul Ali-Karamali, author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, told me:
“Obama has said that he will withdraw the U.S. from Iraq, and therefore I think it imperative that he do so. The invasion of Iraq has caused Muslims all over the world to believe that the U.S. is waging a war on Islam. It’s opened the door to fundamentalists and suicide bombings in Iraq, neither of which were common in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.”
At issue is how America chooses to project its power – whether complacently, in the case of Israel, or aggressively in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama’s pledge to gradually remove U.S. troops from the Iraq region and help ease a transition towards Iraqi autonomy will validate Obama’s intentions in the hearts of Muslims worldwide of a new, improved U.S.-Middle East policy at work.
And so the world waits to see what mask Obama will wear to the macabre revelry that is U.S.-Muslim relations. Will his policies and decisions reflect his multicultural and diplomatic rhetoric, or will that idealistic – and some say naïve and improbable – vision quickly give way to Machiavellian Realpolitik? Regardless of how this relationship ultimately coexists, for the first time in a long time at least both partners can have cause, at least for the time being, to hope for a better tomorrow.
WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Abridged version originally published in Washington Post Global