Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The United States and the Muslim World: Has Obama reneged on his Cairo promise?

By Khaled Hroub
Director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project, United Kingdom

Responding to a student's question in his landmark visit to Istanbul in April 2009, Barack Obama said, "States are like big tankers, they're not like speedboats. You can't whip them around and go in another direction ... you turn them slowly, and eventually you end up in a very different place." Obama has begun to turn the American tanker, but this gradual change does not satisfy the expectations that swept the Muslim world upon his election. The image of the United States, badly damaged in recent years, requires a speedier overhaul than the one currently underway. Many Muslims and mainstream Islamists around the world wonder whether the turning of the tanker will be permanent. A policy reversal is more than likely when Obama leaves office, and the burst of fresh air that Obama's election brought to U.S.-Muslim relations could easily run out.

This article discusses the impact of Obama's presidency on improving U.S.-Muslim relations, with particular focus on Islamists and political Islamic movements. Obama's policy towards the Muslim world and the Middle East will hinge on two topics: the Palestinian- Israeli issue and support for democratization. While George W. Bush gave priority to democracy promotion in the Middle East and ignored Palestine, Obama seems to have taken the opposite approach, concentrating on Palestine and ignoring democratization. If Obama cannot fulfil the high hopes pinned upon him by many Muslims, their compounded frustration could be more damaging than the anger they experienced during the Bush years, and lead to more radicalization. Underneath this fatalistic resignation would lie the sentiment, "If Obama cannot not mend fences with Muslims, no one can."

‘Obamania' has had a significant effect on U.S.-Muslim relations. According to Gallup polls, in most Arab countries, the approval rate of American leadership doubled, and in some cases, tripled during the first year of Obama's presidency. From 2008 to 2009, approval of U.S. leadership increased from 14% to 37% in Tunisia , 25% to 47% in Algeria, 6% to 25% in Egypt, 12% to 29% in Saudi Arabia, and 4% to 15% in Syria. (Lebanon and Palestine are the outliers; approval of American leadership fell from 25% to 22% in Lebanon, and 13% to 7% in Palestine.Overall, this positive upswing corresponds to the new language and tone that Obama brought to international relations. Confrontational policies have been replaced by cooperation, unilateralism by multilateralism, war-mongering by engagement and dialogue.

Perhaps the most striking dimension of the new administration's foreign policy, as repeatedly stated by Obama himself, is America's new approach to the Muslim world, and the Muslim Middle East in particular. Obama's major developments in this field include reinstating Palestinian issue at the top of the foreign policy agenda, scheduling a deadline for the removal of American troops in Iraq (whose presence is seen by many Muslims as a proof of American imperial hegemony over Muslim land), announcing that the infamous Guantanamo Bay detainment facility will close, and combating the disrespect towards and fear of Muslim-American and Arab-American citizens that emerged after 9/11.

Determined to deliver a clear message to the Muslim world about this new approach, Obama gave his first televised interview just one week after taking office to the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Arabiya satellite station. In the interview, he stressed that Muslims should know that the U.S. is not their enemy. Obama said that his job is "to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the wellbeing of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries."

Obama's reconciliatory approach to the Muslim world continued with his two historic speeches in Istanbul and Cairo in April and June of 2009, respectively. In both speeches, he reiterated the themes of coexistence and common values, dismissing the notion of a clash of civilizations. Obama made clear distinctions between the peaceful Muslim majority and the small, violent radical groups hijacking Islam and claiming to act in its name. The Cairo speech was praised around the world as an oratorical masterpiece, and several books analyzing its significance and impact have already been published.

Islamist Ambivalence
Preceding Obama's visit to Cairo, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement titled "The Brothers' Opinion on the American President's Visit to Egypt" on June 4th, 2009.The strangeness, and perhaps the significance, of the statement is that it did not pronounce any clear position on Obama's visit. The Brothers' reiterted their stance on Israel, attacked Western policies, and confirmed the right of the Egyptian people to defend their country and change their internal authoritarian regime. At the end, the Brothers declared they would assess Obama's visit after it had taken place, and avoided making any prior judgement. Short and vague--but not condemning the visit altogether--it reflected the conflicted mood among Arab Islamists toward Obama's visit. After Obama's speech, the Brothers issued no followup message as they had promised, and posted nothing about the Cairo visit on their homepage. This reflects a continuing ambivalence among the Brotherhood, and among mainstream Islamist groups, about how to respond to Barack Obama, no longer a pet presidential candidate but the leader of the United States.

Reactions to President Obama by Islamist groups and intellectuals have been varied and conflicting. A range of these reactions, spanning several movements, will be surveyed here. Isam Al-Aryan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, wrote an article in Beirut's Al-Akhbar daily titled "A Letter to Barak Obama." In the article, Al-Aryan warned Obama against supporting authoritarian regimes in the region, lamenting that these regimes have surrendered their sovereignty and interest to outsiders. Al-Aryan also expressed bitterness that global American military outreach often operates against the essence of American values.

It is a matter of allegiance to your country when you promote principles that are called upon by the American Constitution, the values of freedom, respect of human rights, democracy, and respect for the will of people. By contrast, it is not a matter of allegiance to your country to keep your armies ... occupying all corners of the world. It is not a matter of faithfulness to your principles to keep those detainees in jail without conviction and extract false confessions from them by torture; and to use tyrants and autocrats who remain in power because of your support...

Among the strongest Islamist endorsements for Obama, Mustapha Ikhlaif's article in Al Jazeera called upon Obama to convert to Islam and become the worldwide Caliph of Muslims. The author, a Moroccan academic who writes with Islamist undertones, argues that the race and ethnicity of a Muslim leader is of no importance as long as he embodies the message of Islam. Ikhalif contends that Persians, Turks, Seljuks and other ethnicities have ruled over the Arab region - why could not Barak Hussein Obama be one of them? Obama has been received warmly, even hailed by Muslims, and the only major step he must take before reigning over Muslim countries is simply to convert to Islam.

Al Jazeera also featured work by Muhanna Al-Habeel, a staunch critic of Obama and his Arab and Muslim fans. Al-Habeel, a Saudi writer, wonders how Obama "can explain to us the meaning of justice and tolerance in Islamic values at the same time that his forces strike against tens of innocent people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and those American-occupied areas [are drowned] in rivers of blood." Al-Habeel went on to exclaim, "How nice Mr. President looked while he was sending his greetings to the victims in their graves..."

Between these extremes, another Islamist writer, Nabil Shabib, a Syrian living in Germany, is skeptical. He believes Obama's choice to visit Turkey first among Muslim countries was a loaded move. Shabib contends that Turkey is the type of majority-Muslim state the West wants to see--a secular Muslim country. More importantly, Obama wants to exploit the respected position of Recep Tayyip Erdugan's Turkey in order to implement American policies in the Muslim world. Obama wants Turkey to adopt a more active role in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in the Arab/Israeli conflict. For Shabib, this amounts to "Turkey becoming a Trojan horse for American policy in two components: soft political discourse; and political substance that is based on the continuation of hegemony in a new transformed ‘soft hegemony' after military failures."
Hamas and Obama
Hamas, after greeting Obama's candidacy with such enthusiasm, has been frustrated by the first year of his Presidency. Hamas followed the American presidential race closely and supported Obama to the point of harming his campaign. In April 2008, Ahmad Yousef, political advisor to the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, praised Obama during a WABC radio interview. The statement was widely used by Obama's opponents, who denounced him as Hamas' favorite candidate.

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' chief political leader, has expressed that his organization is more willing to enagage with American policymakers since Obama came to office. Hailing Obama's victory, Meshaal said, "It's a big change--politically and psychologically and it is noteworthy and I congratulate President Obama ... yes, we are ready for dialogue with President Obama and with the new American administration, on the basis that the American administration respects our rights and our options."

Since his election, Obama holds a very delicate position regarding Palestine and Hamas, a litmus test for many Muslims concerning Western credibility in promoting human values and justice. In his Cairo speech, Obama introduced a new approach to Hamas. "Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist."[

In an interview, Meshaal responded by saying
Undoubtedly Obama speaks a new language. His speech was cleverly designed... The essence of the speech was to improve the U.S. image and to placate the Muslims. We don't mind either objective, but we are looking for more than just mere words. If the United States wishes to open a new page, we definitely would welcome this. We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that cannot happen] merely with words. It must be with deeds, by changing the policy on the ground'.

However, despite early signs in January 2009 that the Obama administration was ready to engage with Hamas,[16] putting an end to American isolation of the party and the 1.5 million Palestinians under its jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip, nothing tangible took place.

The greatest challenge for the Obama administration is how to translate rhetoric and well-intentioned statements into concrete change. After a year, Obama's presidency has a mixed balance sheet, and frustration is gathering rapidly. On the Palestinian issue, Obama failed to pressure Israel to put a freeze on settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Withdrawing troops from Iraq in January 2010 has been postponed until August 2010. Obama's dialogue and enagement approach has not been particularly successful in confronting Iran about its nuclear program. Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen stalled Obama's plan to close Guantanamo by voting down measures to relocate the detainees. Turning the hefty tanker is a strenuous job indeed.

Democratization Deficit
The second level of challenges Obama faces with regard to the Muslim world, and Islamists in particular, centers around democracy promotion. Islamists in the Arab world were dismayed that Obama did not use Cairo as an opportunity to address democratisation or the need for political reform in Egypt. Furthermore, he praised President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, an autocrat determined to hand over power to his son, Gamal. Downplaying the issue of democracy advancement is a notable shortcoming of "Obama-ism". As new realism becomes a cornerstone in Obama's foreign policy, his speeches about American involvement in the world have almost completely dropped the previous (Bush-style) emphasis on democratization.

There is a debate raging in Muslim countries on whether it's beneficial to invite external powers to promote democracy. There are concerns about a double standard, since the United States has been famously uneven in its application of democracy. The U.S. desires and fights for democracy in Iraq, but completely ignores Saudi Arabia, for example. The U.S. praises elections in Lebanon when they bring victory to Western-supported coalitions but lambasts elections that empower Hamas in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Among Islamists (and other opposition forces) in the Arab world there is a great dilemma surrounding what to demand from the West. If Muslims ask the United States to pressure their authoritarian regimes for democratization, they must relinquish sovereignty. Advocates of democracy also understand that explicit American support can be the kiss of death for a popular movement in the Middle East. On the other hand, if the U.S. does not intervene, autocrats will remain in power, citizens will still be denied free speech and political participation, and America will appear complicit.

The onus lies on both sides. If Obama truly believes that a stable Muslim world is in the best interest of the United States, then he must adopt a more consistent approach on democracy promotion, one that is less focused on immediate gain. This is necessary to establish a long-lasting, healthy relationship between the U.S. and Muslim states.

Islamists must develop vision of what they desire from the West, and the U.S. in particular, in terms of democracy promotion. If Islamists pragmatically engage with the U.S. to pursue democratic reforms, they can broaden their own support, and counteract the belief that democratization is a Western conspiracy to infiltrate Muslim countries. It is equally important that the Islamist movement continues its trend toward politicization and secularization, as demonstrated by the successful Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Focusing on public service and pushing ideological rhetoric and identity politics to the background will encourage external actors to deal more seriously, and less fearfully, with Islamist parties.

The ‘Obamania' that swept the Muslim world has evaporated and harsh realities have resurfaced. Obama's tanker-speedboat analogy is frustratingly realistic, Many Arab observers have insisted that no matter how much goodwill Obama gained upon election, rhetoric must be proven by deeds. It is unfortunate that Obama has found himself in the middle of several intractable issues: two wars; the global financial crisis; domestic disputes about Healthcare. This limits the time and effort that he has allocated for U.S.-Muslims relations, especially the Palestinian cause and democratization, which ought to be top priorities.

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