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Wajahat Ali Headshot

Is Obama the Muslim World's Superman?

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[Originally published in Washington Post]

Muslims, both here and abroad, are investing their collective faith in Obama as a modern political Superman who will transform U.S. foreign policy from the abrasive "Us vs. Them" ideology of President Bush to an engaging, constructive dialogue. But as Obama begins to assemble his administration, are Muslims assuming too much about the transformative powers of the president?

Certainly among American Muslims the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Specifically, a poll by the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Election (AMT) found that 89 percent of Muslims who voted went for Obama, and that the Muslim turnout in the U.S. elections reached 95 percent, the highest Muslim turnout in U.S. history.

American Muslims' vote for Obama reflects a repudiation of President Bush and his administration's relentless stereotyping of Muslims as extremists and terrorists. Obama's talk of inclusiveness and multi-culturalism, while not specifically naming American Mulsims, has already fulfilled one central wish of the community -- to feel included in the political and cultural life of the country (whether the President-elect can fix healthcare or the economy, other pressing issues facing the American Muslim community, we eagerly wait and see, along with the rest of America).

Overseas, however, Muslims are treating Obama with considerable skepticism born from a fear that once in office, he will be overwhelmed by imperial desire and will perpetuate the rhetoric of the "War on Terror."

As Souheila Al-Jadda, Peabody award-wining journalist and associate producer of Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, explained to me,

"Judging from the Arab media outlets, Arabs in the Middle East don't expect to see much change in policy towards the Middle East, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

There are already some worrying signs that on the key issue of Israel, Obama will be following in the footsteps of his pro-Israeli predecessor. The recent appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama's Chief of Staff deflated some optimistic expectations that the new administration would reform their policy. Emanuel is an Israeli-American dual citizen, pro-Iraq War Democrat, and son of a right wing member of Irgun, a notoriously militant Zionist organization operating from 1931 to 1948, which was responsible for acts of terrorism against the British and Palestinians.

Furthermore, Obama's selection of Sen. Joe Biden as Vice President further cemented this concern, because he once proudly proclaimed, "I am a Zionist" and has repeatedly received an extremely high, pro-Israel rating from AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee).

However, many others such as Zeba Khan, founder of Muslim-Americans for Obama, maintain such appointments will not alter Muslim's positive perception of Obama. Unlike Bush and McCain, Obama has professed a more nuanced and pragmatic relationship with Israel, one that does not automatically tow the hardliner, pro-Likud ideology. Moreover, she notes,

"Emanuel has been appointed Chief of Staff, not Secretary of State. He will not be Obama's go-to guy on foreign policy."

Yet, Obama's ultimate litmus test in the eyes of the Muslim world revolves around his pressure -- or lack thereof -- in convincing Israel to cease building settlements in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza and vastly improving its prejudicial treatment towards Palestinians.

As historian and writer Will Dalrymple told me,

"At the heart of U.S. problems with the Muslim world lies America's complacent attitudes to Israel's continuing colonization and balkanization of the West Bank."

However, Obama's most immediate and potentially delicate diplomacy revolves around the two wars in Muslim countries. On the Afghan front, Obama must tackle the festering quagmire paralyzing the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. To most policy and security experts, this geopolitical arena is the most crucial fulcrum in battling terrorism; one that demands our utmost attention and resources.

It remains to be seen if Obama follows the selfishly myopic policy of administrations past that have recklessly supported Pakistani dictators, such as General Zia al Haq in the '80's and most recently General Pervez Musharaff, to the detriment of pushing Pakistan's electoral base, which is moderate and tolerant, towards democracy.

Furthermore, Obama's continued aggressive rhetoric towards Pakistan -- one that suggests unilateral air strikes and military incursions threatening Pakistan's sovereignty -- has been met with much criticism and skepticism.

"It is difficult to see how Obama plans to 'reach out to the people of Pakistan,' as he has said, if he ignores their democratically elected leaders and if he continues to illegally bomb the FATA tribal territories... which have killed many more civilians than militants, and continue to alienate the people of the region against America and its allies," states Dalrymple.

Meanwhile, Obama's declaration of seeking some semblance of diplomacy with Iran -- albeit under severe restrictions -- elucidates a clear break from the Bush administration's policy. Obama's promise of "dialogue" is precisely what makes him the antithesis of Bush's unilateral "shock and awe" campaign that was so disastrously employed in Iraq.

At issue is how America chooses to project its power -- whether complacently, in the case of Israel, or aggressively in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama's pledge to gradually remove U.S. troops from the Iraq region and help ease a transition towards Iraqi autonomy will validate Obama's intentions in the hearts of Muslims worldwide of a new, improved U.S.-Middle East policy at work.

And so the world waits to see what mask Obama will wear to the macabre revelry that is U.S.-Muslim relations. Will his policies and decisions reflect his multicultural and diplomatic rhetoric, or will that idealistic -- and some say naïve and improbable -- vision quickly give way to Machiavellian Realpolitik? Regardless of how this relationship ultimately coexists, for the first time in a long time at least both partners can have cause, at least for the time being, to hope for a better tomorrow.