Muslims are listening, Mr. Obama!

Muslims are listening, Mr. Obama!

Muslims are listening, Mr. Obama!
Aijaz Zaka Syed | Arab News

A perceptive colleague is tired of my endless adulation for Barack Obama. Every time I talk about him, she rolls her eyes to point out all that America’s new president has done is talk, talk and talk. There are no actions to back up his rhetoric. She accuses me of “betraying the cause” when she sees my repugnance of Bush give way to hopeless admiration for his successor.

And I ask her to pit Obama against W. and see the difference. Imagine the alternate scenario if the Americans had NOT voted for Obama. We would be stuck with John McCain today, the 72-year old warhorse who talked of staying in Iraq and Afghanistan forever and promise to “bomb-bomb” Iran.

Obama may not have produced any pigeons out of his hat yet. But look at what he has already set out to do. It gives you real hope about the “change we can.” Next week, he will be completing three months in office. These have been perhaps the most eventful twelve weeks of any leader in the US history with implications that go far beyond America’s borders.

During his long campaign for the most powerful office on the planet, the young African-American candidate would tell the Americans that if elected he would “hit the ground running” to put the country back on the track. Once elected, Obama wasted little time celebrating and savoring his historic victory. In any case, the wreckage left behind by his predecessor gave him little time or opportunity to celebrate.

True to his words, our hero has been busy from the word get-go, in his efforts to reinvent the ideals and values that once inspired the land of the free. Nobody ever thought bridging the gulf that the neocons spent eight long years digging up would be easy. But Obama is at least trying.

While the ever-deepening economic crisis keeps him busy at home, the new president has in the first three months in office taken steps that have forced the world to sit up and look at his nation with fresh eyes and new respect. It’s perhaps the most ambitious agenda any president has set himself.

And unlike his equally ambitious predecessors such as FD Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, Obama hasn’t mobilized the awesome military and economic power at America’s disposal to achieve those goals.

As someone who virtually talked and charmed his way to power against impossible odds, he certainly knows how to make use of America’s soft power and his own incredible charisma to push his agenda. While this president has demonstrated exceptional political maturity and farsighted pragmatism on all fronts, future historians might remember him for his role in reconfiguring the US relations with the Muslim world.

As promised in his inaugural address, this son of a Kenyan Muslim has steadfastly sought a “new way forward with the Muslim world based on mutual respect.”

The first executive order he issued was to get the Guantanamo Bay shut, a legacy of the Bush years that has been a source of anger and frustration in the Muslim world for many years. This was not just about closing an infamous prison but shutting the door on an era that has brought nothing but shame and disgrace to America.

And the first interview the new US leader decided to grant was to the Dubai-based Arabic television network Al Arabiya — a clear case of medium being as important as the message — honing his mantra of peace and reconciliation with the Arab and Muslim world.

The appointment of special envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan is perhaps the second most important decision the new president made. George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke were dispatched to tackle the two long-festering conflicts in the Muslim world even before Obama completed his first week in office.

Around the same time, he reached out to Iran offering it America’s “unclenched fist” in friendship after three decades of endless hostilities and perpetual fear mongering on both sides.

After initial shock and awe followed by confusion, Iranians seem to have concluded that Obama indeed means what he says. Regular, normal relations with the West after decades of isolation may not be so bad after all.

Ahmadinejad now agrees there are some “new and positive things” in the message from Washington, although Tehran is far from likely to scrap its nuclear program solely because of Obama’s noble intentions.

And now the US says enrichment or no enrichment, it is willing to hold direct talks with Iran, dropping a key demand that Tehran freeze nuclear enrichment before the two sides could come to the negotiating table.

More important, Obama says Iran has a right to pursue nuclear energy — if it’s peaceful. And President Ahmadinejad, who comes up with “good news for Iranian people” from time to time, would tell you it is indeed a “peaceful” nuclear program. Anyway, that’s another debate altogether.

What matter is these are extraordinary times and we are witnessing extraordinary changes. Changes that would be totally unthinkable even weeks ago. It’s amazing how much Bush’s America has changed under his successor. And how fast! This is why when Obama stood in Turkey’s Parliament to reassure the Muslim world that America “is not and never will be at war with Islam,” Muslims around the world were not only willing to listen to him but were prepared to take his word for it.

Of course, we are yet to see any significant changes on the ground. But we’ll get there, if America persists on the path chosen by its 44th president.

Obama’s real work lies ahead. The road ahead will be rough and treacherous, with pitfalls everywhere. The Middle East will be his real litmus test, just as it had been for many before him. It’s a tragedy that finally when we have a willing leader in the White House, the Israelis had to pick up Netanyahu and his even more batty deputy Lieberman. In any case, Israel’s fundamental policies seldom change, no matter who calls the shots in Tel Aviv.

If Obama is the honest and courageous leader that I believe he is, he just might pull it off, succeeding where all his predecessors failed. God knows enough innocent blood has been shed in the Holy Land. About time somebody told Israel enough is enough. The party is over. It’s time to behave and give up what doesn’t belong to you.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based commentator and can be reached at

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