I don’t think there’s much reason yet for anyone to complain about Obama’s foreign policy to the Muslim world, especially given that we haven’t even hit the 100-day mark yet. I personally would have preferred to see the “major speech in a muslim capital” occur in that first 100, but the reality is that Obama’s plate was piled higher and deeper than any president since Reagan’s even prior to taking office. Still, by any reasonable standard, Obama has thus far gone above and beyond with respect to Obama’s engagement with the Ummah.
Of course, given the realities of our nation’s foreign policy priorities, the muslim world dominates the agenda, so Obama’s active stance is as much necessity as it is outreach. However, Obama has a credibility problem with the ummah, that centers on two issues: 1. his ambiguous stance on the Israeli-Palestine issue and 2. his keeping the domestic US muslim community at arms’ length.
With respect to Israel and Palestine, it is worth noting that the newly-elected extreme right wing government headed by Bibi Netanyahu is making it easier on Obama, somewhat ironically. For example, consider the constant refrain from Israeli partisans that the Palestinians do not “recognize Israel’s right to exist.” In actual fact Fatah and Arafat recognized it as far back as 1988, and even Hamas has implicitly conceded this point, by indicating they would accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. It is actually Israel that refuses to acknowledge Palestine‘s right to exist – Netanyahi has yet to affirm his support for the two-state solution and the other major figures in government are explicitly against the idea of Palestinian statehood altogether. Obama’s response thus far is what Richard Silverstein calls a tectonic shift – Obama has refused to meet with Netanyahu in May during the AIPAC conference and has said he’d like to see a Palestinian state by the end of his first term. Birth pangs of a new Middle East, indeed!
Still, that remains talk, not action. So while there is cause for optimism on that front, the kudos have yet to be earned, as far as the muslim world is concerned. It is indeed a positive sign, but just that – only a sign. Trust requires more.
In contrast, Obama’s policy towards muslim Americans has been one of omission – from minor
symbolic gestures like visiting an American mosque, to outright timidity regarding potential “associations” with any muslim-American who might however tenuously be tarred as a terrorist sympathizer or worse, pro-Palestinian advocate. The frankly crass abandonment of Mazen Asbahi by the Obama campaign was instructive, as is the continued distance Obama now keeps from Rashid Khalidi, whose long friendship with Obama became politically inconvenient. This is a pattern of capitulation by Obama to fears of muslim associations, starting with his refusal to confront the “Obama is a muslim” smear when it first surfaced with the same clarity and courage he marshaled in his historic speech on race. All Obama needed to do was say in response, not just “I am not a muslim”, but also “so what if I were?” In essence, Obama considered racism a less of a threat than muslims to his political ambition. Yes, it was a close election and even closer primary – but on all these issues, a principled defense would have been easy, especially for someone with Obama’s rhetorical and charismatic gifts.
One opportunity President Obama has in regaining credibility here is to permit European muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan entry to the United States, formerly barred by the previous Administration from accepting a faculty position at Notre Dame University. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that score.
Related – Asbahi’s close friend Rany Jazayerli writes a passionate defense and scathing critique of the McCarthyite slander campaign against him. Shahed Amanullah points out the chilling effect that Asbahi’s persecution has on any muslim-American seeking to enter the political sphere or serve their country. With regard to Rashid Khalidi, Scott Horton in Harper’s Magazine ably refutes the beneath-contempt accusation of anti-semitism, and Jake Tapper points out the hypocrisy of McCain’s attempt to use Khalidi as an attack – which only underscores how craven it was for Obama to surrender the issue. Lastly, it should be noted that Tariq Ramadan’s main message to European muslims that their loyalties should lie to their adopted host countries, not to some vague and diffuse notion of Ummah. The American prospect had an interview with Ramadan a few years back that really illuminates his thinking.