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Obama Administration and the Muslim World: Some Reflections

By Dr. Abdullah Ahsan

President Barack Obama’s well-publicized speech in Cairo has attracted proportionate enthusiasm among observers from all quarters. High significance of the speech in current international politics is undeniable. Among many problems that the Obama administration has inherited from the Bush administration is the quandary about the Muslim world. The issue was so central that the new President had to touch on the subject while describing a general orientation of his administration during his inaugural speech. He has now brought the issue in forefront of current international relations. 

Although undoubtedly the Palestinian crisis has been the main predicament in the US-Muslim world relations, the Afghan issue has overtaken as the prime issue in this relationship: the President identified the issue as number one in his speech. This is because the US is encountering increasingly more resistance in Afghanistan and has decided to send more troops to the region. The administration has entangled Pakistan into the conflict and has appointed a senior diplomat to handle the situation. We shall concentrate below on the situation in Afghanistan and other general questions in relation to US-Muslim world relationship. However, the general problem of the Muslim world relates to the idea of clash of civilizations, and the Obama administration inherited the clash of civilization scenario in the context of the Muslim world. 

Obama’s selection of Turkey as the first Muslim country to visit was an excellent one. This is not only because of Turkey’s geo-political importance – standing firm on meeting ground between Islamic, Orthodox and Western civilizations, but also because of its legacy of being the last major Muslim power in history – Turkey has the experience of dealing with many nationalities and races. The President’s statement that there was no enmity between Islam and the US from the Turkish parliament was a very appropriate declaration. For Muslims, both in the US and rest of the world this was a much-admired act of reconciliation. The President seems to have been following recommendation of U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project.

However, the decision to deliver his major his policy-speech on the relationship between US and the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt has not gone very well in the Muslim world. This is mainly because although Egypt also played somewhat important role in Muslim history, it is not a respectable entity in the Muslim world today. Egypt lost its credibility in the eyes of most Muslims when in 1978 it defied Arab and Muslim opinion and established diplomatic relations with Israel. Egypt was immediately expelled from both the Arab League (AL) and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Although Egypt was received back to the Arab and Muslim fold within few years, in the process the two Muslim international governmental organizations lost legitimacy in the eyes of common Muslims, rather than restoring Egypt’s credibility. More recently Egypt’s behavior toward the people of Gaza has angered many Muslims all over the world. Therefore, in our opinion attempts to legitimize Egypt in Muslim political affairs by the Obama administration will only harm the reconciliation process. However the President in his speech seems to have avoided giving any credible recognition to Mubarak government in Egypt. 

Returning to the conflict in Afghanistan one clearly recognizes that the question has become a major challenge for Obama administration. The administration has drafted Pakistan into the affair and has committed more troops. Drafting Pakistan into the conflict was perhaps necessary because of geographical and historical relation between the two entities. However, as soon as the US appointment of a senior diplomat was announced, the administration came under pressure from Pakistan’s neighbor and traditional adversary – India and pro-Indian lobby groups in Washington to drop Kashmir problem2 from the list of assignments of the new envoy. This was a defeat for the new administration, for the question of Kashmir is a matter of human dignity and self-determination – common values that both Islamic and Western civilizations share. This raises the most challenging question: What does the US stand for? Hasn’t it declared commitment to introduce democracy in the Muslim world? What is democracy? Doesn’t democracy demand individual’s right to choose? If democracy means the right of self-determination, why are the people of Kashmir denied that right? In fact the President seems to have taken the issue in consideration in his speech: he highlighted the importance of maintaining law and order by consent, not by coercion. The most interesting observation in this context is the fact that when someone from the audience cried out “Allah Akbar” during his reference to coercion and consent in name of democracy, the President acknowledged it saying “thank you” – the only spontaneous thank you in the middle of the speech.  

Again on the question of Afghan-Pakistan crisis, one must keep in mind that there can’t be any military solution to the predicament: History of the region carries plenty of evidences to this fact. Yet it seems that the administration is pursuing the military option. It is quite possible that Pakistani armed forces would capture the whole tribal belt between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the initial stage, but one must note that the real battle may begin only after such a military victory. And the conflict will not remain within the boundaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan; it will spill over not only to neighboring countries but much beyond. One will always find evidences of corruption and oppression (zulm) to engage in a liberation struggle (jihad) against new administrations in the region. The unresolved question of Kashmir will always provide them with sufficient pretext. 

One may argue that democratically elected governments would be able to control any such uprising in the name of nationalism or religion, but in our opinion, one must examine how democratically these governments are elected and what role religion plays in politics in these countries. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, where elections have been conducted during the past year, the parties that lobbied in Washington have been elected and formed government. But do these “elected governments” really represent the people? One must examine this thoroughly. The cultivation of democracy must be genuine. In other words militants must be engaged in debate and discussion. One must keep in mind that the language of war for both, Pakistani armed forces and the militants are the same. Both draw inspiration from Islamic teachings. Pakistani armed forces are trained to fight “jay Hind” or “victory to India,” but not those who shout “Allah-u-Akbar” or “God is great.” The longer that this conflict lingers, the more devastating result it may bring for Pakistan armed forces. Perhaps this is the desire of India and pro-Indian lobby groups in Washington, but consequences of this conflict may turn disastrous for India as well. That is why it is necessary to engage with the militants; be it Taliban or al-Qaeda. The militants will hardly be able to support their views and activities from Islamic sources in public. 

It seems, for militants fresh recruitment is very easy: some Christian evangelists inside the NATO and US troops have made it easy for them. According to some reports they are providing ammunition to the militants by circulating Bibles translated into Pashtu and Dari languages. Also corruption and nepotism among politicians are so rampant that one doesn’t even need to substantiate such claims. Is the Obama administration ready for all these challenges? One corollary of this problem is the role of international press and think-tanks on the region. Many of the news agencies and think-tanks seem to have been infiltrated by mercenary writers. Most of these think-tanks found little evidence of malpractice in the elections recently conducted in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Policy-makers must be careful about reports from the field. 

Information about the militants being better armed than the Pakistan armed forces have been reported in the Pakistani press. Where and how did these arms reach there? This is an indication of the failure of official spy-agencies. Apparently hundreds of NGOs are working in the area. Are they all committed to bringing peace in the region? Policy-makers must also take these into consideration. The Obama administration should also consider replacing NATO troops by OIC troops. Under the circumstances moderate Muslim countries such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh etc may be able to do a better job than the NATO troops. The OIC currently doesn’t have military a military mandate. But creating one should not be difficult, if the US wants to do so. In fact, empowering the OIC would emphasize the point of Muslim self evaluation of the conflict. 

Some critics have found lack of honesty in Obama’s speech: some Muslims have found no reference to Gaza concentration camp, and indiscriminate killing of civilians during the two devastating Israeli invasions of Lebanon in the past decades. Many Israelis believe that they are being pushed to “live” with Hamas and Hezbullah. Many Republicans in the US have found the speech too apologetic. Yet one must admit that overall the speech has generally greeted with enthusiasm. The speech has definitely opened up windows of opportunity for peace-loving activists all over the world. The President has urged for increased educational exchange program. As an academic I strongly feel that universities in the US and the Muslim world should immediately undertake the task. Introductory courses on Islamic and Western civilizations should be made available to all students at university level. Steps should be taken to secure economic and financial investments in Muslim countries. Many immigrant Muslims in the US would be able to invest in back home countries if the OIC, with the blessing of the US, ensures security of their venture. Malaysia and Turkey, as leading Muslim democracies, should undertake the responsibility to empower the OIC in all spheres of activities.  

Overall there should be more investment in education by opening schools throughout the Muslim world. Also there is a need to create an unbiased media. Public debates should be encouraged on subjects such as Islam and democracy. Most importantly a culture should be created to cultivate accountability and transparency in government policies. The US should take lead in cultivating this culture by liberating itself of lobby groups and by opening an independent fresh enquiry into 9/11 tragic events. This will definitely enhance Muslim faith in Obama administration and will build the culture of “do what you say” or “walk the talks.” This is, as the President has decorated, would be in accordance to both the Qur’anic guidance as well as modern democratic principles.

I wrote “My expectations of Obama: between hope and fear” (Today’s Zaman, November 13, 2008) immediately after the election of Barack Obama. After over four months in power, I would like to say, I am now more hopeful about Obama presidency. 

Abdullah al-Ahsan
Professor, Department of History and Civilization
International Islamic University Malaysia.


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