12/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Arab Ambivalence toward Obama and the Race Card

Chicago -- The U.S. election is over, but Al-Qaida finally threw down the race card. The organization's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video last week comparing President-elect Barack Obama to an 'abd al-bait, or "house slave."

It's easy to dismiss such extreme rhetoric as ineffective, especially because we have been frequently told about the enthusiasm that Muslim populations, especially in the Arab world, have for Obama.

But this mischaracterizes the ways in which non-elite Arabs are talking about Obama since the election. Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's chief ideologue, tapped into the ambivalence many Arabs are expressing about the President-elect.

The massive circulation of American culture through the world--fueled by digital media--means Middle Easterners feel familiar with and sometimes ownership of American culture and ideas. But Arabs also are deeply affected by the 2000 U.S. electoral debacle and the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. From Fez to Cairo to Tehran (non-Arab, but similar in this respect), people are guarded and cynical about being hoodwinked yet again by our attractive ways of communicating a message, especially "democracy." They see Obama's rise as barely believable.

Fully cognizant of this, Al-Zawahiri reran a play from the Soviet playbook during the cold war. The Soviet leaders routinely referred to the oppression of African Americans to counter the attraction that American culture - particularly jazz - had among the Russians.

The al-Qaida video included film clips of Malcolm X distinguishing between "field Negroes" and "house Negroes," in which the latter - in this case Obama -- are said to be more dangerous to their brethren, because they were loyal to their white masters.

For al-Qaida, many young Arabs' love of hip hop, the American cultural form that attracts international audiences, is a force to be reckoned with. The Arab engagement with American hip hop is complex, and Arabic language hip hop has become popular both online and in public concerts.

Many Arabs identify with oppression by white America, while others see the outward expressions of luxury (the "bling" worn by many American rappers, for example) as a sign that all Americans occupy an economic status far from their own. Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, young Arabs have become much more skeptical of U.S. intentions, even as they consumed American culture more and more.

Last week when I was in Cairo, arriving just after the election, many who heard me speaking Arabic asked me where I am from. My answer was "medinat Obama," Obama's city. Many smiled in recognition. When I asked Cairenes - working class, middle class, students, writers and intellectuals -- what they thought of the U.S. President-elect, most replied with a telling word: "Hanshouf." We shall see.

The feeling toward American culture and people are another matter. "Americans are good, it's the government's policies that are bad," says Mohammed, a young Arab in the old part of Cairo. When I ask him about Obama, he brightens. "Obama shows just how remarkable a democracy America is. We wish we could have something like it. We need it in Egypt," he says. "A black man, whose father was a Muslim, without power and money, could rise to the top. That shows how America really is."

But when I asked Mohammed whether he thought Obama would be good for the Arab world, there was that word again. "Hanshouf," he said. "I think it doesn't really matter who is the president of the U.S. The policies are the same. It's a new person, but the same country. Bush, Obama, the same," he said. I heard it all over Cairo.

While Americans opposed to Bush administration Middle East policies over the past eight years could still put trust in the American political process, those who grew up in autocracies, monarchies and dictatorships have less reason to trust democracy, having never experienced it.

It is this distrust that al-Qaida is trying to capitalize on. Even if most Arabs disdain the terrorist organization, the injection of the race card is a savvy, if offensive, move.

In Mohammed's hanshouf there is hope, of course. It means that this transition and the first 100 days in the Obama administration will be critical in the Arab world. Obama's ability to excite a generation of Americans and his new-media savvy put him in a perfect position to inspire young Arabs to expect something from America beyond business as usual. That would be a real break in the Middle East tradition that we could all support.