Obama Appeal in Muslim World May Tone Down Militants
November 5, 2008
Hala Mustafa’s friends in Cairo were so thrilled by the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency that they told her to stop wearing red, to avoid looking as if she had adopted the Republican Party colors of John McCain.

“Arabs are very excited,” said Mustafa, editor of Democracy Review, an Egyptian quarterly. “People are imagining that he is a Muslim like them and that he is going to bring a new America that is friendly.”

Obama’s race, Islamic family roots and promise of change give him an opening to blunt militancy rooted in decades of white colonial rule and sharpened by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Exploiting that chance won’t be simple, given that the president-elect isn’t a Muslim, pledged to continue strongly supporting Israel and refused to rule out pursuing extremists in Pakistan.

He will be seen as “a fellow victim of white elites who has miraculously come to power, a figure like Nelson Mandela” of South Africa, and thus “will snatch the initiative from al- Qaeda and the jihadists,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an associate professor of international relations at Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. In the short term, though, Muslims’ expectations for Obama “are much too high to be fulfilled.”

Security Challenges

Extremism will present the new U.S. president with many of his most urgent security challenges: the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civil wars in Sudan and Somalia, the revival of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Iran’s development of technologies usable for nuclear bombs. Israel will elect a government three weeks after Obama takes office, an event likely to shape his ability to pursue a Palestinian peace deal.

Afghanistan today offered a fresh example of the difficulty of battling terrorists without alienating even friendly Muslim countries.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that Obama stop civilian casualties after an air strike by Western forces hit a marriage celebration near Kandahar yesterday, killing 37 civilians, including 23 children, according to an Associated Press report citing local officials. The attack came after Taliban forces attacked troops near the wedding, AFP reported. The U.S. military said it was looking into the matter.

Karzai’s `First Demand’

“We cannot win the fight against terrorism with air strikes,” Karzai said at a press conference, the AP said. “This is my first demand of the new president of the United States -- to put an end to civilian casualties.”

Al-Qaeda has noted Obama’s potential to make progress in repairing America’s reputation among Muslims, damaged under President George W. Bush, said Rohan Gunaratna, director of a terrorism study center at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“Obama will be able to change the perception among Muslims, even moderates, that the United States under President Bush was attacking not terrorism, but the Islamic world,” he said. Militants were “discussing on jihadist Web sites that if Obama comes to power, it will risk a very significant defeat for them.”

Obama’s Kenyan father and Indonesian stepfather were Muslim. As a boy, Obama, 47, attended a mostly Muslim public school in Jakarta, though he never adopted the religion. He describes his baptism and commitment to Christianity in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and has underscored to Jewish voters that he would be a strong supporter of Israel.

Positive Outlook?

In Iran, which has confronted U.S. governments since its own Islamic revolution 30 years ago, people believed before the vote “that powerful lobbies will not allow a colored person to become president,” said Kazem Jalali, a senior member of the Iranian parliament’s national-security and foreign-policy commission. Obama’s election “can bring about a positive outlook,” he said.

“Pakistan and the United States share common interests and objectives,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, said in a letter to Obama. The letter, released by the prime minister’s office in Islamabad today, added: “I look forward to more opportunities to discuss ways to further strengthen Pakistan-U.S. relations and to promote peace and stability in our region and beyond.”

Gamal Heshmat, an Egyptian leader with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist movement in the Arab world, said that his group doesn’t pin too many hopes on Obama’s presidency.

Fixed Tenets

“There are certain fixed tenets to U.S. foreign policy that contradict the interests of our region and our nation,” Heshmat said in a telephone interview from Damnhour, a city northwest of Cairo. “If this policy is to continue only with a softer face, then this is something we do not welcome. The elections will not represent much.”

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that country’s political leadership “welcomes and respects the choice of the American people in electing Sen. Barack Obama as president of America.”

The government has “a sincere desire” to cooperate with the president-elect “to achieve the joint interest of the two sides, preserve the security and stability of Iraq, maintain its full sovereignty and protect the interests of its people,” the spokesman said in a statement e-mailed from Baghdad.

June Elections

An Obama administration’s willingness to drop the Bush administration’s veiled military threats could energize moderate Iranians hoping to oust President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections next June. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a self-declared reformist who may run, told journalists last month he welcomed Obama’s offer to hold talks with Iran.

“Tehran will be willing to bargain” if Obama assures the country’s ruling clerics that the U.S. won’t try to overthrow them, said Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian political-science professor at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, Ahmadinejad’s media adviser, said Iran welcomed the possibility of new policies from Obama. “His slogan was change. We too believe that change is an inevitable requirement,” he told the state-run Al-Alam satellite news channel.

In Iraq -- where Obama says he will pull out combat troops by the summer of 2010, in part to focus on the fight against al- Qaeda worldwide -- any new slide into warfare among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions would renew Muslim accusations that the U.S. invasion had brought on the country’s collapse.

Careful and Realistic

The continued weakness of the Iraqi state and government means “leaders will need to be careful and realistic about how quickly they can move” to reduce the U.S. presence, according to a report last month by Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East and counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In Pakistan, where Obama says he would authorize U.S. forces to attack Osama bin Laden if the al-Qaeda leader were found there, the civilian government is struggling to contain a Taliban movement along the Afghan border. It has stepped up cross-border attacks on U.S. and Afghan government troops and provided what the U.S. says are new sanctuaries for al-Qaeda.

In July, Obama joined the man who became his running mate, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, 65, in sponsoring a bill to triple U.S. nonmilitary aid for Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years.

Pakistani political and military analyst Talat Masood said that approach ought to replace the stepped-up U.S. raids, which have radicalized residents and weakened Pakistan’s government.

“There is no short-term military solution” to the Taliban uprising, Masood said, and U.S. efforts should focus on long- term development, leaving the Pakistani military to combat the insurgents.

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