Barack Obama, Muslims and Islamism

The United States president has put better relations with the Muslim world at the heart of his foreign policy. The discourses of political Islamists reveal the scale of his task after a year in office, says Khaled Hroub.
Khaled Hroub
15 February 2010

Barack Obama responded to a student’s question in Istanbul in April 2009 with an interesting comment on the pace of political change: “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.”

The United States president’s landmark visit to Turkey less than three months after his inauguration was itself evidence that he had started to “turn” the American “tanker”. But by February 2010, over a year into his first (and possibly sole) term of office, its “slow” motion is far from fulfilling the hopes that swept the people of the middle east and the Muslim world when he was elected in November 2008. True, only the most naive might have expected a “speedboat” ride; but Barack Obama inherited a position where the image and foreign relations of the United States had been so corroded, and has thus far done so little to repair it, that a faster pace and a surer direction have become an urgent requirement.

The tanker-speedboat analogy is realistic - even to a frustrating degree. It begs two questions, not least among Muslims (and mainstream or “moderate” Islamists) across the world. The first and most obvious is whether any turning of the tanker is likely; the second is whether it would be irreversible even if it happened. The second is more straightforward to answer. The spurt of fresh air that US-Muslim relations enjoyed after Obama’s arrival in the White House is already somewhat musty; it could be exhausted even before the end of his period in office, and certainly after it.

The first question is more complex. This article attempts to answer it in terms of the prospects for improvement that Obama’s arrival in power has offered, with particular reference to the reactions of political Islamists and their movements. I argue that Obama’s policy towards the Muslim world and the middle east hinges on two major factors: the issue of Palestine, and support for democratisation.

George W Bush made the promotion of democracy in the middle east a priority but ignored Palestine. Barack Obama seems to have adopted the opposite approach. Bush’s policies destroyed whatever confidence existed among Muslims that the US would pursue a just policy towards them. The high expectations invested in Obama are part of the difficult legacy the Bush administration has passed to his successor. The younger president needs to fulfil at least some of them if Muslims’ compound frustration is not to develop irreversible momentum.

A history man

The potential for regress can be measured by the existing impact of Barack Obama’s election on US-Muslim perceptions. During 2009, the first year of his presidency, the approval-rating of American leadership increased by a significant margin in most Arab countries when compared to 2008, George W Bush’s last year in office.

The numbers rose (according to Gallup polling) most impressively in Tunisia (from 14% to 37%); Algeria (25% to 47%); Egypt (6% to 25%); Saudi Arabia (12% to 29%); and Syria (4% to 15%). In Lebanon (25% to 22%) and Palestine (13% to 7%) they continued to fall, however. These trends correspond to the new tone that Obama has brought to the realm of international politics: one where cooperation, multialteralism and dialogue have succeeded confrontational rhetoric, unilateralism, and polarisation.

This international approach acquires perhaps its most profound meaning in relation to the Muslim world in general and the middle east in particular. Most importantly, the Palestinian question has been restored to near the top of Washington’s foreign-policy agenda, with an awareness that a settlement would serve both American national interests and good relations with Muslims. There are other items where progress has begun: the scheduling of a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, movement on the closure of the Guantánamo prison-camp; attempts to reassure Muslims in the United States that they are equal citizens and not (as in the aftermath of 9/11) objects of fear and suspicion.

Obama’s determination to show the Muslim world that he intended to follow a fresh course was reflected in his first television interview as president, given a week after his inauguration to the (the Saudi-owned and Dubai-based) Al-Arabiya satellite network. In it he stressed that Muslims should know that the Americans are not their enemy; and that his job is “to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being 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.”

This reconciliatory approach to the Muslim world culminated in historic visits (each defined by a single major speech) to Turkey and Egypt, respectively in April and June 2009. These Istanbul and Cairo speeches reiterated the themes of coexistence, cooperation and common values; dismissed the notion of any “clash of civilisations”; and delineated a clear distinction between the vast peaceful Muslim majorities and the small violent radical groups hijacking Islam and claiming to act in its name. The Cairo speech was in its own right a masterpiece of oratory that received worldwide acclaim and warranted the publication of books on its significance and impact.

A broad river

The discourses of Islamist movements and intellectuals in the Arab world on Barack Obama and his leadership are diverse and far from monolithic. Each is best perceived within its specific context. Yet these perceptions do share common traits, evident sometimes in silence and sometimes crystallised in their pronouncements. The prevalent themes include ambivalence; cautious welcoming and guarded hope; and the demand for action that follows rhetoric and confirms intentions.

A curious example is when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood issued an ambiguous statement in advance of Obama’s arrival in the country, entitled “The Brothers’ Opinion on the American President’s Visit to Egypt”. The oddness, and perhaps import, of this statement stem from the fact that it refrained from pronouncing any clear position.

The document reiterated the brothers’ views on Israel, attacked western policies, and confirmed the determination of the Egyptian people to defend their country and change their internal authoritarian regime. Towards the end, the statement declared that the brothers would assess the visit in its aftermath, thus avoiding any prior and prejudiced position.

This short and vague announcement expressed the then ambivalent mood among Arab Islamists - even if it was riddled with concerns and particularities pertaining to Egypt’s own Islamist movement. Equally notable is the fact that when the visit was over the brothers issued no substantive follow-up statement as promised.

There are other cases where a similar combination of attitudes is visible in Islamist discourses - though with great variation in tone. For example, Isam al-Aryan, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt, wrote an article in al-Akbar (Beirut) under the title “A Letter to Barack Obama”. In it, al-Aryan encouraged Obama to refrain from backing authoritarian regimes in the region, lamenting that these regimes have surrendered their sovereignty and interest to outsiders. Al-Aryan also expressed bitterness that America’s global military outreach ran contrary to the essence of American values: “[yes] it is a matter of allegiance to your country when you promote principles that are called upon by the American constitution, and the values of freedom, respect of human rights, democracy and respect of 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....”

An article by the Moroccan academic Mustafa Ikhlaif published on Al-Jazeera offers an interesting variant on this problematic. It calls on Obama to convert to Islam so that he can immediately become the leader (indeed caliph) of Muslims the world over. The writer argues that for Muslims the race or ethnicity of who rules them is of no importance as long as that person embodies Islam. After all, people of Persian, Turk, Seljuk and other origins have ruled Arab regions - why could not Barack Hussein Obama become one of them? Muslims have warmly received and hailed Obama; the only obstacle in the way of him reigning over Muslim lands is the mere one of becoming a Muslim.

Another article on the same site by the Saudi Islamist writer Muhanna Al-Habail is far more critical. Al-Habail wonders how the “man [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. How nice Mr President looked while he was sending his greetings to the victims in their graves...”

The Syrian Islamist writer Nabil Shabib (who is based in Germany) is equally sceptical. He considers that Obama’s choice of Turkey as the first Muslim country to visit and address the Muslim world was loaded with a biased message: that the United States president sees Turkey is the type of Muslim country that the west wishes to deal with: a secular Muslim country that can be persuaded to help implement American policies in (for example) Afghanistan, the Arab/Israeli conflict and Pakistan. For Shabib, this amounts to “Turkey becoming a Trojan horse for American policy in two ways: a soft political discourse; and a political substance that is based on the continuation of hegemony in a transformed ‘soft hegemony’ that follows military failures.”

The response of the radical Islamist movement Hamas to Obama’s initiatives is also noteworthy. Obama’s Cairo speech sought to outline a very delicate position regarding Palestine and Hamas’s role, a litmus-test for many Muslims as to whether the west is to be viewed as hypocritical or credible in promoting human values and justice (see “Obama and the Middle East: Palestine First”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 December 2008). Hamas closely watched the American presidential race and strongly favoured Obama - to the extent of harming him, when a favourable comment made by Ahmad Yousef (a political advisor to Ismail Haniya’s Hamas-led government in Gaza) was widely circulated by the then candidate’s domestic enemies.

Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s top leader, made several positive statements about Obama from his Damascus base in which he expressed the readiness of his movement to open dialogue with the United States. Meshal welcomed Obama’s victory in November 2008 as “a big change, politically and psychologically, 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.”

Obama’s Cairo speech seemed to echo this apparent outreach: “Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognise they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements, recognise Israel’s right to exist.” In turn, Meshal responded in an interview: “Undoubtedly, Obama speaks a new language. His [Cairo] speech was cleverly designed... The essence of the speech was to improve the United States’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 US wishes to open a new page, we definitely would welcome this. We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that this cannot happen] merely with words. It must be with deeds, by changing the policy on the ground.”

Indeed, there were signs in the early days of the Obama administration of a readiness to engage with Hamas and end the movement’s isolation - and with it that of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. But a year on, nothing tangible has taken place. The “well-intentioned” will to turn the tanker around may be present, but in practice the first year of the Obama presidency has rarely departed from the eight years of George W Bush.

A double test

Barack Obama faces two challenges. The first, and largest, is to translate rhetoric and well-intentioned statements on major issues into real politics and action. More than a year into his presidency the balance-sheet is mixed, and frustration is gathering.

Over Palestine, the US president has failed to press Israel to “freeze” settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and thus pave the way to a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq has become a more prolonged process, and subject to doubts over the status of the American troops due to remain there until December 2011. The closure of Guantánamo has proved messy. The engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue has been difficult and contentious, narrowing Obama’s choices and perhaps rendering the entire “dialogue and engagement” approach obsolete. The renewed American military strategy in Afghanistan faces formidable challenges, and the “surge” in troops it involves invites comparisons with Obama’s predecessor.

All in all, even shifting the hefty tanker by a slight degree has become an extremely strenuous task. Iran and Israel, among other states, are quite content to make Obama’s job harder; and the president’s domestic foes - on a spectrum from neo-conservatives and “tea-party” activists to hawkish radio hosts and (self-proclaimed) pro-Israel groups - are equally adamant in their opposition. Only leadership, boldness and consistency can make the tanker move.

The second challenge facing Obama with regard to the Muslim world, and Islamists in particular, concerns “democracy-promotion”. Islamists and other opposition forces in the Arab world were dismayed at Obama’s neglect in his Cairo speech of the issue of democratisation (and more broadly reform) in Egypt. Indeed, he even praised the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak. The Obama administration’s speeches and strategy papers about American involvement in the world have almost completely dropped its predecessor’s emphasis on democratisation. This may be understandable in light of where that policy led, but it is a judgment that may carry more dangers than it seems to contain.

A baleful aspect of the George W Bush-era legacy with regard to democracy-promotion is the real dilemma that surrounds any demand that the outside (western) world intervenes to encourage democracy in the Muslim world. It can be summed up in that familiar yet inescapable phrase “double standards” - denoting the many cases where the ostensible push for democratic reform is used insincerely as a tool to advance other interests, and where rhetoric is completely at variance with reality. When democracy is fought for in Iraq and completely ignored in Saudi Arabia; when democratic elections are praised in Lebanon when they deliver the “right” result, but ignored in Palestine when they award victory to the “wrong” people - the contradictions, the “double standards”, are obvious and damaging.

Yet beyond the obvious there remains ambivalence. Islamists, as well as other opposition forces in the Arab world, are in great confusion as to what exactly they should demand from the west. If they urge the west to press authoritarian regimes toward democratisation, this would be seen as inviting foreign powers to interfere in national affairs; and risk a death-kiss to democracy and democrats alike. But any rejection of western interference could be seen as the tacit backing of dictators and indifference to the suppression of people and their freedoms.

After the dream

The onus now lies on both sides. On the American side, if Obama really believes that the well-being of the Muslim world is in the interest of the United States then he urgently needs to be less focused on short-term objectives, more value-driven - and to adopt a consistent approach to the promotion of democracy. True, all this is harder to implement than to say, but it remains a prerequisite for long-term and healthier US-Muslim relations.

On the Islamist side, there is a need to articulate a public vision as to what is exactly required (and hoped) from the west in the area of democracy-promotion. Islamist approval of “some” such western policies would help to channel these policies on a less hostile course, free of the taint of conspiracy and infiltration of Muslim countries. Of equal importance is the further politicisation and secularisation of the politics of Islamist movements, in ways close to the Justice & Development Party (AKP’s) experience in Turkey. If Islamist political practice moved the “politics of services” to the forefront while keeping ideological rhetoric and the “politics of identity” in check, this would encourage external actors to deal more seriously and less fearfully with political Islam.

It could be argued that by mid-February 2010 the “Obamania” that swept the Muslim and Islamist worlds (as elsewhere) a year earlier has evaporated, and that harsh realities have resurfaced. Barack Obama’s foreign-policy agenda is after all hedged by a host of intractable issues: inherited conflicts, the global financial crisis, unemployment and the healthcare bills among them. The resources needed to build on his initial outreach to the Muslim world are correspondingly limited. In these difficult days, the mantra of astute observers (including Islamists) that “deeds should prove words” remains valid. The Palestinian cause and democracy-momentum are the test of whether the Obama agenda towards the Muslim world lives. If those are the levers for tilting the “tanker”, so much else could follow.

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