May 31, 2009
Wednesday, he will be in Saudi Arabia to meet King Abdullah. On
Thursday, he will be in Egypt to deliver his much-anticipated address
He has already taken four mini-jabs at the subject
- in his inaugural address; his Jan. 27 interview with Al-Arabiya TV;
his March 19 video address to Iran; and his April 6 speech to the
This has drawn mixed reviews:
He wouldn't be addressing the Christian world, or the Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist worlds. Why the exception for Muslims?
framing terrorism in religious terms, he's treading the same turf as
militant Islamists, on the one hand, and Bush, on the other.
He has no choice but to fix the shattered relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
What are his challenges? Four experts I spoke to outlined them:
Where's the beef? Juan Cole, author of Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave
Macmillan), said Obama has done well to ditch Bush's formulation that
tackling Muslim militants was "like taking on the Axis powers in World
War II, and the way to do it was through conquest, occupation and a
transformation of the Muslim world.
"That was a huge conceptual error, doomed to failure."
Jihadists are not the old Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany. Non-state actors are best dealt with as the criminals they are.
Obama has a challenge of his own. "Beyond denying the Bush paradigm, he
must develop his own positive paradigm. I haven't heard that
articulated," said Cole, professor of history at the University of
John Esposito, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (Gallup Press), also feels Obama is running out of time. "The window is beginning to close on him."
"There's a real irony in the leader of the free world delivering a
major speech to Muslims in one of the most repressive parts of the
world," said Nader Hashemi, author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy(Oxford).
Mubarak is an oppressive dictator, "one of the most despised, in part
due to his close alliance with the U.S. and collusion with Israel in
maintaining the siege on Gaza."
A better platform would have been
Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation, or Pakistan, Turkey or
Bangladesh, all evolving democracies.
It's the No. 1 issue for Muslims, said Esposito, director of the Center
for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in
Hashemi, a native of Toronto now teaching Middle East
and Islamic politics at the University of Denver, recalled Obama's
words in Sderot last year that if his daughters were subject to daily
rocket fire, as Israelis were from Hamas, he'd do everything in his
power to stop it.
"This begged the question: if the president's
daughters were refugees who could not return home, stuck in one of the
most densely populated areas of the globe, and subject to an ongoing
siege, would Obama also do everything in his power to alleviate their
"Failure to speak in moral terms about the plight of
the Palestinians will be a massive setback for his Muslim outreach
Iraq: If Obama's pullout plans work out, he'll have neutralized the second biggest source of anger.
Embracing dictators: Polls
show that Muslims are as desirous of democracy as any other people. And
they resent the Western hypocrisy of promoting democracy and human
rights but cavorting with Arab dictators and monarchs.
naming Egypt, I think Obama will say that the U.S. will no longer be
supportive of autocrats, who deprive their people the right to
freedom," said Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, a Washington
think-tank on international affairs.
But that's what Condoleezza
Rice said in Cairo in 2005, and nothing came of it. Nawaz: "Frankly,
that's his biggest challenge - how to deal with the Islamic autocrats."
Cole said Obama is sending mixed signals. "He wants face-to-face talks
with Iran but has named Dennis Ross as the point person. He's a
well-known hawk on Iran. The Iranians are upset and have made it clear
they're not going to sit down across the table from Ross.
Obama is using the Bush rhetoric about not allowing Iran to have a
nuclear weapon. But American intelligence agencies do not see an
Iranian nuclear program."
Esposito noted that Obama is not
threatening to go to war with North Korea, despite its nuclear blasts.
It is, thus, important to "indicate that he is not going to be
stampeded into a military action against Iran."
Afghanistan/Pakistan: Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford),
said Obama's economic package for Pakistan's tribal areas has been
well-received by Pakistanis. They are also behind the military
initiative against the Taliban, being undertaken under U.S. pressure.
public is fed up with the Taliban but the anger can quite easily turn
against the government and the U.S, given the dire situation of the
internally displaced people."
Is all this doable? Cole, for one, thinks so. "Give Obama eight years, and things will look different."
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