|Moroccans I have spoken with are hesitant to embrace Obama until they see real change first.|
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Obama and the Muslim World: Bridging the Gap When Words No Longer Work
Guest Column: Andrew Farrand graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2006 with a degree in African and Middle Eastern Studies. He currently lives in Fes, Morocco, and blogs at www.IbnIbnBattuta.com.
Almost four weeks have passed since Barack Obama's inauguration as America's new president, and yet—if my observations here in Morocco are any indication—everyday Muslims remain unconvinced that a new US leader will bring about a new American leadership abroad.
Like many Obama supporters, I hold high hopes for this administration's potential to forge changes in America's foreign policy, and consequently in our reputation abroad (see Barack Obama and the End of the American Disappointment). Since the inauguration, I have asked a few Moroccans for their early impressions of Obama, to see if they share my optimism.
It appears that not many do. Fatima, a housewife, put it simply: "Nothing will change." Abdelsalaam, an English teacher, was equally pessimistic: "Obama will not be different from Bush. He cannot be—this is politics."
But surely Obama's interview last week with Al Arabiya News—his first such session as president—will convince Muslims that he is charting a new course for America, right?
Shortly after it had aired, I asked Abdel'ali, a taxi driver, about the interview. "Yes, I heard about that conversation," he said, but he hadn't seen it. So I inquired about his impressions of Obama more generally.
"أوباما هو ما زال جديد," Abdel'ali replied. Obama is still new.
Pardon me? Sure, the guy has only been president for a matter of days. But after thousands of hours of campaign speeches were beamed around the world 24/7 for two years, I hardly think of Obama as "new." So why does this Moroccan taxi driver consider him an unknown quantity?
It's not because Abdel'ali is uninformed (ordinary citizens around the developing world could drub Americans at a news quiz any day, hands down). Instead, the answer has to do with America's recent record in its relations with the Muslim world. Today, many Muslims feel that the US has let them down—or worse, wronged and disrespected them—too many times, especially over the last eight years. Even as US leaders spoke of democracy, freedom of choice, and freedom of expression, we plunged into fruitless invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, assaulted Muslims' dignity at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and continue to support non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
This gap between the principles and the practice of American leadership has left Muslims understandably jaded with Washington's lofty rhetoric. As a result, words no longer cut it. Particularly here in the Muslim world, it will take concrete action for Obama to re-brand America as a global force for good.
So how does Obama's record of action look? Not great, judging by public opinion here in Morocco. Alaa Al Aswany's informative op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times indicates that Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere would agree. In Obama's first big test—the clashes in the Gaza Strip that flared for several weeks leading up to his inauguration—he maintained public silence, all to glad to have "one president at a time" in the face of such a diplomatic nightmare. While dispassionate observers far removed from the conflict may have labeled Obama's inaction as smart politics, Muslims the world over were less impressed. For many Muslims, the Israel-Palestine question is the rawest of nerves. Obama's failure to condemn Israel for its overwhelming show of force affirmed for them that the new administration has no plans to reevaluate America's imbalanced approach to the conflict. (In case there were any remaining doubts, in his Al Arabiya interview Obama unambiguously confirmed—but failed to justify—America's continued support of Israel.)
Here in Morocco, a bizarrely obsessive campaign has cropped up in recent weeks, dedicated to convincing Obama to give his much-rumored "early foreign policy speech from a Muslim capital" in Rabat. One Moroccan blogger, however, admits that the campaign remains a small fringe: "Has anyone heard any Moroccans in Morocco speak on this subject and their opinion on President Obama speaking in Morocco? No one knows."
Maybe true, but I have a good guess: After Obama's silence on Gaza, the overwhelming majority of Moroccans aren't clamoring for him to visit. Instead, they remain pessimistic about the suggestion that he will usher in a new era of positive US-Muslim relations.
So what must Obama do to earn some credibility in the Muslim world? As symbolic first steps, sitting for the Al Arabiya interview and sending a half-Lebanese ambassador on an early listening tour of the Middle East were positive gestures, but no more. Before Muslims worldwide look to America as a beacon of freedom and justice, they will want to see definitive evidence of a change. Going beyond mere words, how about an end to torture and extraordinary rendition, the closure of the holding facility at Guantanamo Bay, a gradual military withdrawal from Iraq, or most important of all, a balanced diplomatic approach in Palestine that actually produces something resembling peace there?
Ordinary Muslims in Morocco and across the world may not feel much hope these days, but hey, they can still dream.