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Eric Margolis Headshot

Obama and the Muslim World

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After what most of the Muslim world considered eight years of relentless hostility by the Bush/Cheney administration, the advent of President Barack Obama was anticipated with enormous hope and enthusiasm.

President Obama's masterfully written, artfully delivered recent speech in Cairo was filled with precisely what the Muslim world had been waiting to hear: an intelligent, respectful American leader calling for normalized relations with the Muslim world, including former 'betes noires' Iran and Syria, cooperation, and genuine US support for democracy and human rights.

But the Muslim world was not as enthused by Obama's silver-tongued oratory as many Americans. The general response among Muslims was, 'actions speak louder than words. Where are the actions.'

Unfortunately, rather than a newly friendly, helpful United States promoting democracy and human rights, many Muslims saw the Obama administration expanding the war in Afghanistan that he could easily have ended, or at least put on hold upon taking office.

They saw the US-rented Pakistani Army create 3 million refugees in its Swat offensive against rebellious Pashtun tribesmen; the continuing US occupation of Iraq that many believe will never end; CIA's covert campaign to destabilize Iran and Syria, and Washington's continuing machinations in Somalia.

They listened to the US Congress applaud Israel's refusal to cease building illegal settlements or to respect the basic human rights of Palestinians. They heard US neoconservatives baying for war against Iran.

The Muslim world listened to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu demand Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus delegitimizing that nation's 20% Christian and Muslim minority, and negating any right to return by millions of Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu insisted Palestine would remain sealed from the outside by Israeli security forces.

These facts unfortunately speak a lot louder than the president's mellifluous oratory.

We would like to give the new president the benefit of the doubt. He has been in office only five months and will need a lot more time to begin repairing the catastrophic damage inflicted by the Bush administration on US interests and standing in the Muslim world and Europe. He must confront powerful Washington lobbies that have been entrenched for decades.

However, the White House's recent actions even contradict many of the new president's promises.

Exhibit A: Obama unfortunately chose Egypt, of all places, from which to deliver his message to the Muslim world of amity, democracy and human rights.

Egypt's US-backed military dictator, President Husni Mubarak, has held power for 27 years and is grooming his son, North Korean-style, to replace him. A third of the Arab world's people live in Egypt. Rather than setting a progressive, democratic example for the Mideast, Egypt has is deeply repressive and out of step with the times.

Egypt's human rights record is lamentable, as even senior US officials have complained. Its prisons are notorious for abuse and torture. The Bush administration routinely sent captives to Egypt for outsourced torture.

A far-too large army, corrupt oligarchy and ferocious secret police provide the foundation of the Mubarak regime's power. However, capable and clever he may be, Mubarak remains an autocrat who crushes all opposition and only tolerates yes-men.

Yet Egypt is America's most important Muslim ally, along with Saudi Arabia. Is this what Obama means when he calls for democracy and human rights? He should have given his speech from democratic Indonesia, or the progressive United Arab Emirates and Qatar rather than Egypt, a pillar of America's Mideast Raj.

Who, one wonders, is advising the president on the Mideast and Afghanistan?

Exhibit B: Lebanon's 7 June parliamentary elections. A US/French/Saudi-backed coalition of Sunni, Christians, and Druze was pitted against a Syrian-Iranian backed Hezbullah-led coalition that included Armenians and a Christian splinter faction.

Late last month, US Vice President Joseph Biden went to Lebanon and openly threatened to cut off all US aid to that nation of 3.9 million if the democratically-elected Hezbullah coalition won. Hillary Clinton made similar crude threats. Is this the kinder, gentler, more thoughtful Obama way? Even Dick Cheney kept this threats private.

Imagine the uproar if the Saudi crown prince came to the US just before elections and threatened to raise oil prices if Democrats won.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and France spent hundreds of millions of dollars bribing Lebanon's venal politicians and buying votes. The US has been mucking around like this in Lebanon since 1957, often with disastrous results.

Iran spread some money around as well. Nothing new about that: Lebanon's elections often are determined by who bought the most voters and politicians.

All the western 'baksheesh' and some fancy vote rigging helped the US-backed March 14 coalition, headed by Saad Hariri, win 71 seats. The Hezbullah-led coalition won only a surprisingly small 57 seats. This left fragmented Lebanon just where it was before this sleazy election. The vote results reeked of fraud. But Washington hailed Lebanon's vote.

Is this what Obama means by promoting good government and democracy in the Muslim world?

Exhibit C: Iran's hotly contested democratic election for president. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was blasted on TV by his opponents and subject to barrages of public criticism. There is not a single other Arab ally of the US, Lebanon excepted, where such feisty democratic behavior would be tolerated, and even less than would an honest vote.

Opponents in Iran are calling foul, claiming Ahmadinejad's victory was rigged, but, so far, offering little hard proof. However imperfect, Iran's elections tend to be much fairer than those of their Arab neighbors or Pakistan. At least President Obama has so far wisely reserved comment on Iran's fraught election.

Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike see Obama as an honest, decent, well-intentioned leader. But they are wondering if he has so far failed to impose his will on the entrenched interests in Washington that appear to be carrying on many of George Bush's policies.