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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Muslims Cautioned about Expectations

Barack Obama, the US president elect, had a ready audience this week when he spoke of repairing the country’s image among Muslims and the international community – issues he trumpeted on the campaign trail that last month led him to victory.

What exactly he will have to do to restore good relations depends on whom you ask. But all agree that actually fixing the ties will be an uphill battle.

“One of the problems he faces is expectations, they’ll be very high,” said James Zogby, the president of the Washington, DC-based Arab American Institute.

Read More“Many Muslims hope to see a swift resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a fast fix for the Iraq war, neither of which will be solved within the first 100 days of Mr Obama’s presidency,” said Mr Zogby, who also writes a column for The National.
“He has to look for smaller, but real, things to do. The small things don’t let people down and they win him time.”

For instance, Mr Obama must “make clear his commitment not just to two states, because that doesn’t say much anymore, but to make a statement of concern about the suffering of the Palestinian people – and then to do something about it”.

In an interview with The Chicago Tribune this week, Mr Obama promised an “unrelenting” desire to create good relationships with countries “who want their citizens and ours to prosper together”.

“I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.”

Mr Obama also reaffirmed his plan to make a major speech in an Islamic capital some time after he is sworn in on Jan 20 – news that spurred much speculation about which city that might be and what he might discuss there. Some reports have suggested Cairo, the Egyptian capital, would provide a central and safe destination for Mr Obama to speak.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said such a speech would be a good first step.

“The majority of the people in the Arab world and in the Muslim world want to see more than speeches,” he said, even as he described himself as “very optimistic” about Mr Obama’s presidency in general.

“People have to be patient,” he said. “It’s not realistic that he’s going to make huge changes in the first few months.”

However, a swift shuttering of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba would be seen as an early litmus test of his commitment, he said.

“He has to distance himself from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and all the other secret prisons around the world.”

Mr Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo and put some of those held there on trial in American military and criminal courts. How quickly he moves to do that would be closely watched, Mr Masmoudi said. “If it takes him more than six months to close Guantanamo, that would be a very bad sign.”

Several of Mr Obama’s cabinet picks have aroused unease among some Muslims, notably his decision to nominate Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. Mrs Clinton is seen by some as too closely aligned with Israel, while others note her outreach to Muslims – especially Muslim women – when she was first lady during her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter,” Mr Zogby said of Mrs Clinton’s nomination, noting that as George W Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, could do little but represent his boss’s agenda.

Laila al Qatami, the communications director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, acknowledged the mixed feelings about Mrs Clinton but remained optimistic.

“Everyone recognises her as a very apt and capable person – and she’s also, of course, not the person who sets policies. She carries out the policies of the administration.”

Ms al Qatami also noted that changes on the home front could go a long way towards mending the United States’ image abroad.

“People in the Arab world see how Muslims and Arabs are regarded here in the United States,” she said. “It’s still very common here to smear Arabs here… The way the community is treated here and portrayed here in the media is important.”
Khaled abou el Fadl, a law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, agreed that in restoring America’s global image, Mr Obama must first restore the image of Islam in the United States.

“Obama needs to assure the Muslim world that the US does not see Islam as an illness to be treated or something defective and flawed that ought to be fixed,” said Mr abou el Fadl, a former Bush appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“If Obama recognises that, like racism and anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Islam hating has become a major problem in today’s world and proclaims that the US affirmatively condemns and is strongly opposed to all acts designed to perpetuate religious hatred and bigotry, this will have a very healing effect,” he said in an e-mail.

Mr Obama is uniquely suited to rebuilding America’s image with Muslims, observers say. He is a Christian with ties to Islam – his Kenyan father was raised a Muslim. As a child he lived for several years in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

During the campaign some pundits emphasised that his middle name, Hussein, was a liability. But in the interview with the Tribune, Mr Obama said he would be inaugurated as US president with his full name.

“I think the tradition is that they use all three names and I will follow the tradition,” Mr Obama said. “I’m not trying to make a statement one way or another, I’ll do what everybody else does.”

Mr Masmoudi said that with his ties and experience abroad, Mr Obama is bound to have more knowledge and respect for other religions.

“And frankly I think that’s why he was elected,” Mr Masmoudi said. “I think that the American people are tired of the wars and the confrontation. They want to see more respect and more dialogue and more reaching out to the Muslim world.”

* The National

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