Obama’s other Muslim problem

Could he preside over the birth of a new relationship with the Muslim world?

Barack Obama, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, speaks at a town hall meeting at Kaukauna High School, Wisconsin on June 12 [GALLO/GETTY]

As soon as Barack Obama rose to the top of the field of Democratic presidential contenders, he developed a “Muslim problem” based on false accusations that he is, or once was, a Muslim.

There is little doubt that these accusations will be raised again, however unfairly, when Obama squares off against John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, in November’s election.

But if we were to assume that Obama overcomes this and other obstacles to win his historic bid for the White House, a far more serious Muslim problem awaits “President” Obama: A majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims have an utter lack of trust in the US.

Senator Obama’s experience of living in a Muslim country (Indonesia, where he attended school during his childhood), along with his relative youthfulness and message of hope, have the potential to heal this rift, however.

He has the merits which can energise young Muslims in the same way he has inspired millions of young Americans.

Comprehensive changes required

But this potential will not easily be realised, partially because of the ill-advised policies of the Bush administration and their impact on the Muslim world.

Most of the Generations X, Y Muslims I know, from Morocco to Pakistan, will not be swayed by Obama’s lofty rhetoric unless it is backed by comprehensive changes in US foreign policy.

Indeed, the young and educated citizens of the Muslim majority world are more politically sophisticated and historically knowledgeable of Washington’s foreign policy than their generational cohorts in the US.

They feel deeply and negatively impacted by these policies as they try to find coherence and stability in the increasingly chaotic post-9/11 landscape.

Islamic demographics

How can Obama reach Islam’s most crucial demographic – the young and passionate?

Muslim youth are not one homogeneous entity but comprise a remarkable diversity.

From the Saudi teenagers who listen to Britney Spears to those who are swayed by the farewell messages of female suicide bombers; the Egyptian metalheads who spend Friday afternoons at the mosque and Friday evenings playing Black Metal; and the graduate students in Islamabad whose Talibanesque appearance is belied by their study of Hebrew and the latest theories of comparative religion.

While it is heartening to hear Obama tell young people around the world “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now,” it is not at all clear that his presidency would seize that moment to implement a mutual drive across the Muslim world.

In the US today merely to advocate talking with our adversaries is considered radical. But the students, activists, religious figures and artists who are struggling against the robust authoritarianism that dominates the Muslim world want action.

What Obama must do

The senator from Illinois must stop offering political, economic and military support to repressive governments who torture political prisoners, discourage economic and political reform, and censor Facebook, YouTube and other key nodes of the emerging Muslim public and cultural spheres.

He must push to get US forces out of Iraq, now. And, perhaps more importantly, Obama must hold all the countries of the Middle East – including Israel – to one standard.

Would a President Obama satisfy any of these demands? Not likely. Obama locates the root of the region’s woes solely inside it, “emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam”.

He is unwilling to even question the role and impact of US Middle East policy in analysing the region’s problems.

He will not offer even mild criticism of Israel while wholeheartedly endorsing Tel Aviv’s refusal to consider granting Palestinian sovereignty over any part of East Jerusalem,  which forecloses any possibility for peace.

It becomes difficult to see how such views would enable the kind of “aggressive diplomatic effort” across the region the senator calls for.

Talking to Iran

Will Obama sit for talks with the Iranian leadership if he becomes president? [EPA]

Moreover, Obama’s much debated willingness to talk to Iran is undercut by his support for implementing confrontational policies.

For example, he supported designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation and pushing for increased sanctions against the Islamic Republic -before even sitting down with its leadership.

Most importantly, Obama hedges his pledge to remove US forces from Iraq, refusing to commit to a full withdrawal of US troops while calling for a large expansion of the ranks of the active duty military.

This suggests that as president, Obama would continue and even increase US military engagements in the region, against the wishes of the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Luckily, a burgeoning coalition of people across the Middle East – in particular, the younger generation – are not waiting for “President” Obama, or anyone else, to save them.

American activist youths

A growing activist community, religious and secular together, is challenging the sclerotic politics of their governments and the resistance identities of Islamist extremism – in cyberspace, in the emerging media sphere, and when possible on the streets – with a positive, peace, justice and development oriented Islam.

But this is not the “moderate” Islam preferred by American policy-makers. Rather, it is based on a radical critique of the status quo – of US global economic and military supremacy as much as of the self-inflicted problems of their societies.

If an Obama administration is unwilling or unable to break free of the geopolitical and economic priorities that have long determined US Middle East policy, it will be up to the young Americans who helped elect him to join their counterparts across the Muslim world in demanding that their leaders finally walk the talk of peace, democracy and equitable development.

If they do, an Obama White House could preside over the birth of a new and more positive relationship between the US and the Muslim world.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source : Al Jazeera

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