Reaching Out to the Muslim World
by Hasan Zillur Rahim
President Barack Hussein Obama followed up the promise he made in his inaugural address - “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” - with an interview with Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on January 26. The interview is significant not just for its content but also for the fact that it is the first interview he granted since taking office.
In the interview, the president said, “… my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record … America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.”
In case anyone has any illusion about the enormity of the task, the president also said, “But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world - but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well.”
Since 9/11, we have become acutely aware of the critical role language plays in inflaming passions. Recognizing that, Obama said, “… the language we use matters. What we need to understand is, is that there are extremist organizations - whether Muslim or any other faith in the past - that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name. And so you will I think see our administration be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like al Qaeda - that espouse violence, espouse terror and act on it - and people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop. We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.”
On Iran: “I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran. Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past - none of these things have been helpful. But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
This radical departure from the policies of the Bush administration - with-us-or-against-us Manichean view replaced with respect and inclusiveness - fills many of us with hope. Perhaps someday peace will reign between Palestinians and Israelis and the world will rejoice in a two-state solution. Can hope triumph over history? Only a few weeks ago, such a possibility could not be imagined. Now the words have been spoken and who can say that they will not take wings on their own?
Not that everyone is thrilled. Many right-wingers are aghast that the president has a) given his first interview to an Arab news channel and b) he is reaching out to Muslims so early and so decisively in his presidency. Discontinuing Bush’s belligerent policy toward Iran has outraged them. Others think he is being naïve, that he is undermining the security of America by essentially declaring that the “war on terror” is over.
The predictable Fouad Ajami, writing in The Wall Street Journal, summed up his analysis of the president’s message to Muslims with these words: “Obama Tells Arabia’s Despots they’re safe.” This is a man who never fails to see a dark lining in a silver cloud.
In the president’s inaugural address are words that describe these people perfectly: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
Meanwhile, our imagination and hope have been stretched by the president’s message to Muslims: America will respect those who may hold different views or who are disappointed by past American actions. Only those who use terror and violence to achieve their nihilistic goals will be targeted by America. What a difference a cosmopolitan president can make!