Monday, June 1, 2009

Muslims seek substance from Obama, not rhetoric

President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with King Abdullah has raised the expectations of Arabs so high that Obama might set himself up for failure.

Obama’s five-day swing through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France promises to engage the worldwide Muslim community “based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.” The White House says he wants to share common goals to fight Islamic extremism and develop a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Already Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to assure Muslims that the United States is not its enemy. He has put his Muslim credentials on the table, noting his background and the fact his father was a Muslim. He has opened the door to Iran for meaningful dialogue. He wants to celebrate our commonality, not our differences

It’s not as if I haven’t heard these promises before. President Bush certainly considered himself a friend of Muslims when he wasn’t railing against Islamofascism. And his “road map” for peace looked pretty good on paper. I must admit, though, that expectations among Arabs and Muslims were not particularly high with Bush.

Obama, however, is going to have a tough act ahead of him. While his Cairo speech is highly anticipated in the Middle East, there is a whiff ceremonial grandstanding on his itinerary. He will visit Buchenwald to remember Holocaust victims and then on to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day. I’m sure that some Saudi ministers will persuade him to join in the traditional Saudi sword dance in Riyadh. It didn’t do much for Bush’s image, so let’s hope Obama pulls it off.

This potential glad-handing makes Arabs nervous and annoyed. It’s fine to engage in this protocol and unite the Ummah with an emotional speech. Saudis also appreciate that Obama has chosen Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, to discuss the Arab agenda before speaking in Cairo. It’s a positive step towards reconciling with Muslims.

But Arabs expect substance right out of the gate. The primary issues of Middle East peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, seem to be shifting away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving towards dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, routing the Taliban and stabilizing Iraq.

Yet these three issues simply treat the symptoms of the chaos in the Middle East and not the disease itself. For the Muslim on the street, everything starts with Israel. The saber-rattling we see between Israel and Iran is based on each country’s perception of security. Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its behavior in Gaza strike genuine fear in the region. If Obama wants to make an impression, he must focus on the core issue of Israel and Palestine. The ripple effect of Palestinian statehood and the right of return will help the U.S. deal with Iran, Iraq and the Taliban.

But now there is talk among Western diplomats that modifications might be sought in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which guarantees Arab recognition of Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders and gives Palestinians the right of return. The right of return seems to bother a lot of Westerners and Israel due to internal security concerns. But Arab leaders are not willing to negotiate this aspect of the plan.

Arab leaders rather see pressure applied to Israel to curb its destructive behavior. The habit has been to pressure Arab leaders to behave because the U.S. views the conflict through the lens of Hamas and Hezbollah’s conduct. To the West, Hamas lobbing rockets into Israel is not conducive to peace. No, it’s not. But neither is the Israel Defense Forces latest incursion into Gaza that left more than 1,000 civilians dead and many more homeless. If Arab leaders are to be held accountable for the actions of Hamas, then the same must be done with Israel. Arabs have given a lot of ground in the past two decades, primarily in watching Israel face international condemnation for its actions, but not held accountable in any meaningful way.

Israeli lobbyists have worked long and hard to protect Israel’s interests, as they should. But it doesn’t mean that Americans must capitulate to Israel under the threat of anti-Semitism.

If Obama is to reach Muslims, then he must risk this threat, knowing the American public will recognize that such charges are specious, and solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He should worry less about negotiating modifications in the Arab Peace Plan and more about how to get a recalcitrant Israel to move towards peace without it alleging anti-Semitism at the drop of a hat.

What Arabs are looking for in the Cairo speech and the visit to Riyadh are tangible statements from Obama that he understands the Arab point of view, willing to convey that message to Israel, and demand that Israel step up to the plate and show some movement to get the plan approved. A timeline that is enforced and doesn’t collapse after the first hiccup from Hamas or the next outrageous statement from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a vital component to Obama's road to peace.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post.


Tawfeeq Al Rayyash said...

Congratulations, the first step to success

ratherdashing said...


Congratulations on the exposure you received from Huffington Post. It's a nicely written article that sums up the Arab expectations for Obama.

But, here lies the biggest problem of all as stated in your words:

"For the Muslim on the street, everything starts with Israel. "

Because expectations are so high and the focus on Israel is so strong, the Muslims on the street are missing a huge point. Their main political concern should not be the Israeli/Palestinian issue. It should be on their own political situation within their own respective countries. They need to focus first on demanding and securing individual liberties from their rulers. How about the freedom to assemble in peaceful protest, the freedom to speak your mind without intimidation or jail-time, the right of women to move about freely, and open, fair elections (at least at the local level)?

The Israeli/Palestinian issue is used to distract the Muslim on the street from his own pressing problems. It's used to deflect built up frustration with their own rulers. The Palestinian issue does warrant attention but it shouldn't be #1 amongst a people who are being crushed under the weight of oppressive regimes.

I hope Obama talks about individual liberty first and ME peace second.

Jerry M said...

"President Bush certainly considered himself a friend of Muslims"

Bush was a friend to the Saudi royal family, and little more.