INTERVIEW
 
Muslim world cautious on Obama pledge to reach out
AFP
January 21, 2009
Muslim leaders on Wednesday cautiously welcomed President Barack Obama's promise of a fresh start to US relations with the Islamic world and moves to halt 'war on terror' trials at Guantanamo Bay.

His inauguration speech sent ripples of expectation across the Muslim world that the new administration would quickly set about repairing the rift that emerged under the presidency of George W. Bush.

'To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,' Mr Obama said on the steps of Capitol Hill after taking the oath of office before a crowd of more than a million people.

The new president vowed to 'responsibly leave Iraq,' forge a 'hard-earned peace' in Afghanistan and work with 'old friends and former foes' on nuclear disarmament in a balance of soft and hard diplomacy.

One of Mr Obama's first acts in office was to order prosecutors to seek a suspension of military trials at the controversial 'war on terror' camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Military judges were expected to rule Wednesday on that request, which would affect the trials of five alleged plotters of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Closing Guantanamo, as Mr Obama has promised to do as soon as possible, would mollify burning Muslim resentment over the treatment of detainees there.

'This is a good sign leading to the closure of the camp,' said Makarim Wibisono, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United Nations.

'That was one of Obama's promises during his campaign. I hope this will move forward and the new US leadership is more sensitive to humanity and human rights.'

But Mr Obama made no direct reference in his speech to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israel's military onslaught in Gaza, causing some Muslim analysts to doubt his sincerity.

Maskuri Abdilah, the head of the Nahdlatul Ulama - Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation with some 60 million followers - said Mr Obama dodged the one issue at the core of the Muslim world's concerns.

'It is very good that Obama wants to find a 'new way forward' with the Muslim world but first he has to change US policy over Israel and the Palestinian conflict,' he told AFP.

'This is crucial because this problem is the root of all violence and tension between the Islamic world and the West.'

Mr Obama is confronting some daunting challenges - such as withdrawing from Iraq, bringing peace to the Middle East and Afghanistan, stabilising nuclear-armed Pakistan and thwarting Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions - with the potential to poison US-Islamic relations further.

In Pakistan, a crucial US ally in the war on terror but battling a spreading Islamist insurgency, Quaid-e-Azam University international relations professor Ishtiaq Ahmed said Mr Obama had to face the 'realities in the region.'

'Troops did not work in Iraq and troops will not work in Afghanistan. Obama will have to reverse Bush's neo-conservative policies which created so many fissuers between the US and the Muslim world,' he said.

'There have to be policy changes in South Asia because Pakistan and Afghanistan are big challenges.'

Khurshid Ahmed, a senior leader in Pakistan's main religious political party Jamaat-i-Islami, said: 'I can only pray. I have some hope but with due caution.' He wished Obama all the best but noted his 'silence over the carnage of the Palestinians in Gaza.'

In neighbouring Afghanistan, where Mr Obama is planning to send more troops to fight a stubborn Taliban insurgency, analyst Haroun Mir from the Center for Research and Policy Studies said Mr Obama's speech had sent a 'very strong signal that he is willing to improve relations with the Muslim world.'

'There is already optimism about him in the Muslim world,' he said.

Access interview at straitstimes.com