Man in the Street: Opinions of Obama from the Muslim World

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | Fes, Morocco

Moroccans I have spoken with are hesitant to embrace Obama until they see real change first.
A big thanks to my friend Jeb (an old buddy from my days in Jordan) and his colleagues Matt and MDC over at Foreign Policy Watch for publishing my guest column "Obama and the Muslim World: Bridging the Gap When Words No Longer Work". In the early weeks of the Obama era, I examine Moroccans' views of the new American administration, and offer some insights into why the Muslim world may be hesitant to embrace the hope which Obama inspires in many Americans.

Check it out at FP Watch or below, and let me know your thoughts:
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

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.


Forrest Brown said...

What is your opinion on how a return to normal US-Syrian relations (send ambassador to Damascus, make clear that regime change is NOT an option, push Israel-Syria peace treaty as advocated here ) will affect opinion of Obama in the Muslim world? Also, while adopting a different, more balanced approach to Israel-Palestine is certainly desirable, what immediate concrete steps would signal this in a manner that improved the perception of Obama in the Muslim world?

Andrew Farrand said...

Thanks for your comment, FB.
First, let's admit that Syria is not exactly the linchpin of the Muslim world. I'm a fan of the country, it's people, etc. but I recognize that a mere diplomatic rapprochement between Syria and the US is unlikely to make a huge difference in Muslims' perceptions of the US. That being said, increased economic ties, WTO assistance, perhaps even aid? between the two countries would be a clear sign that Obama meant what he said in his Inaugural Address about unclenching fists. (And would anyone in Iran be watching closely? You bet) A Syria-Israel peace treaty would be an even stronger step in this positive direction. Such an agreement would really turn some heads, and maybe begin to turn some hearts and minds as well, provided that the US had a major role in brokering it.
As for concrete steps on Israel/Palestine that could boost the administration's image in the Muslim world... this one's tough. Both sides of the conflict have decided to entrench themselves and fight it out (Among Palestinians, Hamas got a popularity boost from last month's Gaza crisis, and hardliners gained ground in recent Israeli parliamentary elections). Speaking to Hamas, rather than pretending they're an illegitimate government, would be a valuable first step. How about a public meeting between Hamas and Obama administration officials? Beyond that, negotiating an end to the economic isolation of Gaza or a resolution of the Palestinians' current crisis of leadership would be major victories. The climate is not ripe for hope or change on these fronts, I fear - maybe better to stick with progress on Syria for now.

Henry v.W. said...

Hey Andrew, when are you going to post a blog post about Looking forward to reading it! I mean, it could be really useful, I think, to a lot of people. And we're starting to get featured in different media, like Syracuse University's student newspaper (not as good as The Page, no)
and in "WebDev2.0" (

Anonymous said...

(Follow-up to FPWatch discussion)
Andrew, I'm disappointed in you.
I critique you on the grievances issue, and then you go on to compose a laundry list of Moroccan grievances that the US should respond to.
Through your Western-centric/euro-centric lens, you cannot imagine that perhaps Moroccan Muslims do not desire the same things WE do.
And some of the grievances you list have NOTHING to do with Morocco
- Stop torturing our religious members (NOT in Morocco)
- Stop invading our land (NOWHERE near Morocco)
- Stop propping up dictators (NOT Morocco)
- Stop supporting Israel that kills OUR civilians (NOT MOROCCO!)
It's funny that Muslims can have shared communal grievances, but never take shared responsibility over their compatriots actions. By your logic, all Muslims are therefore guilty/responsible for acts of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam.
And worst of all, you talk about the "dignity" of Moroccan Muslims. How in the EFFIN world is the US damaging Moroccan "dignity"? Such a vague word that Muslims do not typically use in the same context as Westerns. But then we come back to the fact that you can't get around your own ethnocentric view that they want the same things we do.
It frightens me that one day you might have influence over U.S. foreign policy.

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