Towards the enlightened middle

Towards the enlightened middle

On inauguration day, Muslims and citizens worldwide will optimistically and anxiously begin purging the sordid memory of the disastrous and obtuse arrogance of the Bush administration. Even Barack Obama cannot completely cleanse the collective stain of the Bush era that squandered global goodwill with two failed wars, a belligerent rhetoric of a clash of civilisations, unyielding support for Israel”s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the shameful, morally indefensible legacies of Guant?namo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

To quell the simmering discontent and unrest between the United States and Muslims, Barack Obama – the appointed Superman of the 21st century”s globalised, multicultural world – can flex his powers and demonstrate heroism by embracing diplomacy, renouncing hypocritical and selfish policy initiatives and spearheading a dialogue fuelled by respect and mutual understanding.

“A president can set a tone for a nation. President Bush used fear to further his policies. President Obama will hopefully set a tone of tolerance and inclusiveness,” suggests Dean Obeidallah, an award-winning Arab-American comedian who has travelled across the Middle East, echoing the sentiments of many Muslims and Arabs worldwide.

However, buyer”s remorse seems to have set in for many Muslims following the usually verbose and eloquent Obama”s unusual silence concerning Israel”s relentless bombardment of Gaza that has killed over 900 Palestinians and wounded nearly 4,000 more. Obama”s reluctance to vocally condemn Israel”s punishing militarism against Palestinians has forced many Muslims to believe he will be a Manchurian candidate instead of a superhero; a mere parrot who recycles the ineffective “support Israel above all else” narrative to the detriment of brokering a tangible peace process that includes the Palestinians as viable partners.

As Jamal El-shayyal, a Middle East expert and producer for Aljazeera, told me: “The Egyptian public like the rest of the Arab world is not too optimistic for a change in policy during the Obama administration … the majority of people do not regard US foreign policy with the slightest respect. Many view it as biased, oppressive and at times even inhumane.”

Dealing fairly with the citizens of Palestine serves as the ideal template for Obama to prove that his eloquent rhetoric of change was not just a politically savvy, Machiavellian ruse. Currently, however, the US is predictably staying on its antiquated course by emerging as the only UN security council member who abstained from voting on a resolution expressing “grave concern” about the growing humanitarian crisis and heavy civilian casualties in Gaza. At Aipac”s annual conference last summer, Obama followed suit by promising he would “never compromise when it comes to Israel”s security”. Meanwhile, incoming secretary of state Clinton affirmed “the United States stands with Israel now and forever”.

Obama”s new government can continue to ignore the concerns of Palestinians and instead unconditionally defend Israel to ensure purely selfish US and Israeli policy initiatives, but at what cost?

Dr Hatem Bazian, an adjunct professor at the Boalt School of Law and lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, predicted the logical, dire consequence of such a myopic policy: “If the US under Obama does not move swiftly to change course and address the need for a real peace in Palestine for representative democratic political process in corrupt and autocratic regimes then the next conflicts will be more bloody and far more destructive than what we are witnessing today.”

Hosni Mubarak”s repressive and stifling dictatorship in Egypt, which is strongly supported by the United States but reviled by Egyptians, is increasingly threatened by the emergence of hard-line, Islamic governments such as Hamas. Its success emboldens Mubarak”s rivals, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Muslim political and social organisation and major opposition to Mubarak”s rule. As a close US ally, Mubarak closed Egypt”s borders to fleeing Gaza refugees and offered a harsh rebuke to Hamas for firing Qassam rockets despite criticisms of such rhetoric by angry Egyptians.

If Obama indeed practices the diplomacy he preaches and wants to eschew America”s mantle of selfish hypocrisy, he must at the very least interact with democratically elected Muslim governments and representatives, like Hamas and Ahmadinejad of Iran, especially considering the US has no problem aligning itself closely with the oppressive regime in Mubarak”s Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, it bears noting that not all Islamic oriented governments are radical or hard-line reactionaries, as seen in Turkey and Indonesia. Thus a wholesale demonisation and rejection of Islamic based governments and political groups is an affront to the Muslims who elected them, a perpetuation of Bush”s “clash of civilisation” rhetoric seeped in religious and racial intolerance, and ultimately a diplomatic hindrance that sours and corrupts a relationship that could have flourished as a beneficial alliance in the war on terror.

Also, it must be noted that the Muslim world, both in America and abroad, is not a monolithic Borg entity that can be easily demarcated between enraged fundamentalists and secular modernists. Furthermore, many Muslims, just like Americans, appreciate the complexities and nuances of global politics and foreign diplomacy. Willow Wilson, a Muslim essayist and comic book author who has lived in Egypt, agrees: “To me, the “clash of civilisations” never seemed as dire in the Muslim world as it is here [in America]. With the exception of extremists, people in the Muslim Middle East seem quite willing to separate Americans from their government.”

Ultimately, the perceived hypocrisy of US foreign policy with the Muslim world – in stark contrast to its espoused democratic ideals and values – must be radically altered by Obama”s rhetoric and initiatives. As Dalia Mogahed, the director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and co-author of the indispensable Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, told me after years of polling Muslims worldwide: “Muslims admire what we call “western values” of equality and human rights, but do not believe that we as [Americans] live these values in our treatment of them. … To regain trust, America must project an image, through its actions, consistent with its promise to the world.”

From this perspective, the Muslim world has been intently watching how Obama – and by extension America – treats its very own Muslim-American citizens. Despite record voter turnout and a highly organised, proactive civic engagement during the election, many Muslim-Americans feel spurned by Obama as if they were political kryptonite or modern day Boo Radleys. This is also evidenced by a national hysteria whose fear of Muslims forced AirTran to remove innocent Muslim-American patrons from their airplane. Despite the FBI giving security clearance to the Muslim-American family and vouching for their normalcy, they were removed to placate the misplaced paranoia of a few passengers.

To make matters worse, Obama, unlike George Bush, refused to visit a mosque during his presidential campaign so the taint of Muslim would not dare rub off on him. (At the time, 13% of Americans were convinced Obama was an undercover Muslim and thus perceived him negatively.)

His staff also ignominiously removed two visible hijabi (veiled) Muslim women from the stands so they would not appear on camera. Even the architect of two major Iraq wars, Colin Powell, strenuously denounced the rampant fear mongering and unwarranted questioning of Muslim Americans and their alleged loyalty and patriotism to the United States. However, Obama – or any ranking Democrat for that matter – has yet to publicly denounce such divisionary and bigoted rhetoric. Obama could have – and should have – mentioned Arabs and Muslims in his victory speech especially considering he stressed inclusiveness and respect for diversity among straights and gays, blacks and whites, abled and disabled. Would a mention of Muslims, Arabs and Jews not help tremendously in bridging the divides? However, Obama can redeem this oversight through his historic inauguration speech.

Such inviting rhetoric shows Muslims at home and abroad that Obama”s generation seek dialogue in which both parties reach across the table to shake hands and finally talk to one another instead of at one another. As Ms Mogahed told me: “More than anything, Muslims want to be respected as equal human beings; neither parented or demonised by the west. Obama must make Muslims feel that they are partners, not subjects or suspects, in the challenges facing our world.”

The clash of civilisations might be paved with extremism, intolerance and reckless aggression, but the road to moderation is a two way dialogue traversed with sincerity, mutual respect and desire for change through understanding. Let”s hope Obama and Muslims both begin their walk and meet each other somewhere in the enlightened middle.