Obama Appeal in Muslim World May Tone Down Militants (Update2)

Obama Appeal in Muslim World May Tone Down Militants (Update2)

Hala Mustafa“s friends in Cairo were so thrilled by the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency that they told her to stop wearing red, to avoid looking as if she had adopted the Republican Party colors of John McCain.

“Arabs are very excited,”” said Mustafa, editor of Democracy Review, an Egyptian quarterly. “People are imagining that he is a Muslim like them and that he is going to bring a new America that is friendly.””

Obama”s race, Islamic family roots and promise of change give him an opening to blunt militancy rooted in decades of white colonial rule and sharpened by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Exploiting that chance won”t be simple, given that the Democratic senator from Illinois isn”t a Muslim, pledged to continue strongly supporting Israel and refused to rule out pursuing extremists in Pakistan.

He will be seen as “a fellow victim of white elites who has miraculously come to power, a figure like Nelson Mandela“” of South Africa, and thus “will snatch the initiative from al-Qaeda and the jihadists,”” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an associate professor of international relations at Pakistan”s Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. In the short term, though, Muslims” expectations for Obama “are much too high to be fulfilled,”” he said.

Security Challenges

Extremism will present the new U.S. president with many of his most urgent security challenges: the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civil wars in Sudan and Somalia, the revival of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Iran”s development of technologies usable for nuclear bombs. Israel will elect a government three weeks after Obama takes office, an event likely to shape his ability to pursue a Palestinian peace deal.

Al-Qaeda has noted Obama”s potential to make progress in repairing America”s reputation among Muslims, damaged under President George W. Bush, said Rohan Gunaratna, director of a terrorism study center at Singapore”s Nanyang Technological University.

“Obama will be able to change the perception among Muslims, even moderates, that the United States under President Bush was attacking not terrorism, but the Islamic world,”” he said. Militants were “discussing on jihadist Web sites that if Obama comes to power, it will risk a very significant defeat for them.””

Strong Israel Supporter

Obama”s Kenyan father and Indonesian stepfather were Muslim. As a boy, Obama, 47, attended a mostly Muslim public school in Jakarta, though he never adopted the religion. He describes his baptism and commitment to Christianity in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,”” and has underscored to Jewish voters that he would be a strong supporter of Israel in its confrontation with Muslim governments and militant movements.

In June, Obama drew criticism from Palestinian leaders and Arab-Americans by telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that an “undivided”” Jerusalem should be Israel”s capital — a rebuff to Palestinian claims to the eastern part of the city. The next day, he said that while Jerusalem should remain the Jewish state”s capital, other aspects of its status must be negotiated.

In Iran, which has confronted U.S. governments since its own Islamic revolution 30 years ago, people believed before the vote “that powerful lobbies will not allow a colored person to become president,”” said Kazem Jalali, a senior member of the Iranian parliament”s national-security and foreign-policy commission. Obama”s election “can bring about a positive outlook,”” he said.

Pakistan, U.S.

“Pakistan and the United States share common interests and objectives,”” Pakistan”s Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a letter to Obama. The letter, released by the prime minister”s office in Islamabad today, added: “I look forward to more opportunities to discuss ways to further strengthen Pakistan- U.S. relations and to promote peace and stability in our region and beyond.””

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in an e-mailed statement that Obama”s administration will bring “renewed prospects for engagement between the United States and Muslim countries.””

“Some of the most contentious issues of our time, including the ongoing conflicts and confrontations in the Middle East, require a commitment to diplomacy, a willingness to engage in a meaningful dialogue and a departure from the aggressive unilateralism witnessed in recent years,”” Anwar said.

Gamal Heshmat, an Egyptian leader with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist movement in the Arab world, said that his group doesn”t pin too many hopes on Obama”s presidency.

“There are certain fixed tenets to U.S. foreign policy that contradict the interests of our region and our nation such as their support for Arab rulers against the will of their own people, and the U.S. denial of human rights and freedoms to us and supporting the Zionist entity,”” Heshmat said in a telephone interview from Damnhour, a city northwest of Cairo. “If this policy is to continue only with a softer face, then this is something we do not welcome. The elections will not represent much.””


Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that country”s political leadership “welcomes and respects the choice of the American people in electing Sen. Barack Obama as president of America.””

The government has “a sincere desire”” to cooperate with the elected president “to achieve the joint interest of the two sides, preserve the security and stability of Iraq, maintain its full sovereignty and protect the interests of its people,”” the Iraqi government spokesman said in a statement e-mailed from Baghdad today.

Veiled Threats

An Obama administration”s willingness to drop the Bush administration”s veiled military threats could energize moderate Iranians hoping to oust President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections next June. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a self-declared reformist who may run, told journalists last month he welcomed Obama”s offer to hold talks with Iran.

“Tehran will be willing to bargain”” if Obama assures the country”s ruling clerics that the U.S. won”t try to overthrow them, said Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian political-science professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. Jamali said he expected no early change from Obama in the U.S. approach –backed by the United Nations Security Council — to offer Iran economic incentives for curtailing its nuclear work.

In Iraq — where Obama says he will pull out combat troops by the summer of 2010, in part to focus on the fight against al-Qaeda worldwide — any new slide into warfare among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions would renew Muslim accusations that the U.S. invasion had brought on the country”s collapse.

Continued Weakness

The continued weakness of the Iraqi state and government means “leaders will need to be careful and realistic about how quickly they can move”” to reduce the U.S. presence, according to a report last month by Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East and counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Egyptians show especially strong support for Obama because the state-run media under President Hosni Mubarak have promoted him as an alternative to Bush, Mustafa said. He is less popular in Pakistan, according to a July report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, largely because of his declaration that he would authorize U.S. forces to attack Osama bin Laden if the al-Qaeda leader were found to be in that country.

Pakistan”s new civilian government is struggling to contain a spreading Taliban movement that has seized control of ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan border, stepped up cross-border attacks on U.S. and Afghan government troops and provided what the U.S. government says are new sanctuaries for al-Qaeda.

Undercut the Taliban

In July, Obama joined the man who became his running mate, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, 65, in sponsoring a bill to triple U.S. nonmilitary aid for Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years. The bill aims to promote economic development to undercut the Taliban and help stabilize both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistani political and military analyst Talat Masood said that approach ought to replace this year”s stepped-up U.S. raids into the Pashtun lands, which have radicalized residents and weakened Pakistan”s government.

“There is no short-term military solution”” to the Taliban uprising, Masood said, and U.S. efforts should focus on long-term development, leaving the Pakistani military to combat the insurgents.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rupert in Islamabad at [email protected], or Khalid Qayum at [email protected].