A face, it seems, is not enough: Barack Obama and Muslim opinion

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Much has been made of Barack Obama’s ability to woo tough crowds. He has had impressive showings in Europe and America. Much was made of interest in his candidacy and election in the Muslim world. His speeches in Ankara and Cairo won kudos in America, Europe and beyond. But much of this has come in a euphoric tone, more interested in the spin around big talk than what the words actually mean or what might come of them in real terms. A primary assumption about Barack Obama and the Muslim world has been that he could challenge and change the mistrust that existed between many Muslim populations and the United States. That assumption has gone largely unchallenged and has assumed a position near to fact in the heads of some American policy thinkers. His foreign policy has turned out to be more realistic than many of the public diplomacy-obsessed had anticipated. And significant numbers of Muslims in key demographics seem unmoved by the President’s use of local color on YouTube and in Cairo.

Marc Ambinder writes of the recent Pew poll on global perceptions of the United States:

Western Europe loves Obama–French and Germans have more confidence in Obama than in Sarkozy and Merkel–but the Muslim world is apparently unconvinced.

[. . .]

Looking at the data, it’s clear that Muslim countries prefer Obama to Bush.

[. . .]

Opinions rose slightly in Egypt and Jordan, but Obama’s high-profile address to the Muslim world in Cairo this summer apparently has yet to mend the fences Obama sought out.

That speech was meant to pave the way toward better relations, and perhaps it has. But according to Pew, Obama’s not there yet.

A BBC survey in March reported Muslim populations in Turkey (51 percent) and Egypt (58 percent) were optimistic that Obama would improve America’s relations with the rest of the world. Today’s report of deep mistrust are about achievement, not aptitude: they simply prove Obama hasn’t won people over–not that he can’t.

Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright in the Financial Times:

“It is certainly better to have a president who is respected and who is popular than who is not,” said Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, referring to the contrast in international public regard for Mr Obama with that for former president George W. Bush. “We were in a hole in our reputation and leadership… There is a long way to go but it is much better to start here.”

For the most part, however, attitudes were negative in much of the Muslim world, including allies in Turkey and Pakistan. Only 14 percent of Turks gave the US a favourable rating, barely up on last year.

“I personally am a little surprised by the continuing Muslim numbers,” Ms Albright said. She described the Muslim and Western worlds as being in a “very deep rift”, which would “take some time to fix”.

For the first time in a number of years, however, an American president received a more positive rating in some large majority Muslim countries than Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader. One of Mr Obama’s highest ratings came from Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood.

Ambinder notes the irony of Obama’s numbers taking a relative dip in Israel whilst making slight gains in the Arab states. He writes: “one might think that a drop in popularity among Israelis would correspond to a surge in Muslim support, as the Obama administration has been tougher in its dealings with Israel than the Bush administration had.”

At certain level the Obama administration has not been tough on either the Israelis or the Arabs; it has made promises and little progress. His overtures to the Arabs were largely symbolic in nature, designed to make their publics more optimistic and to reassure leaders of American confidence in their relevance and capacity as client states. Simply because a president gives a speech peppered with Islamic greetings and well constructed diplomatic language does not mean that hearts will be lifted in any measure of time. And why should they? Pakistanis, for instance, live with the daily consequences of American foreign policy; Obama’s Af-Pak policy has meant the death or displacement of many thousands of Pakistanis. A glittery speech in Cairo is not going to change that or the reality that the United States will be dropping bombs on Pakistanis, training and encouraging the Pakistani government to undertake operations against its own people or that many Pakistanis see American objectives in and for their country as fundamentally at odds with their own national interest. It should not come as a surprise to any informed American that Pakistanis — urban or rural — would not be so glib as to take Obama’s words in Cairo or anywhere else at face value. He did after all, campaign on fighting harder on their border.

The Turks, and many have remarked on this before, have had a problem with American dealings with their country for some time. They have felt ignored and cheated by the United States at least since the beginning of the Iraq War. They are none too happy about American collusion with Iraqi Kurds, which they see as encouraging unruliness among their own Kurds; and they have felt that their role in Europe and the Middle East has been shaken by conspiracy upon conspiracy. Obama gave the Turks the best he had. It was a fine speech, tailor-made for its primary audience, the Turks. What is more is that it was not played as much else than that, a policy speech to the Turks. It was realistic and straightforward. It was written with the limitations of both Turkey’s prospects in that dubious concept of “Europe” and in its more immediate environment. The Ankara speech presented no false hope and it was given in regards to a relationship that had been blundered mainly out of stupidity rather than real, structural differences of interest. The American media and public seemed to find this boring. It was necessarily narrow in scope and was given in a capital that it is likely few Americans can locate.

This is an important distinction from his speech in Cairo. Americans thought it hugely significant; an American leader was speaking well of Muslims and to Muslims. The administration billed it as a major policy speech to the Muslim world. In this way, American expectations were raised quite high and soon after it was delivered, the speech was labeled a nearly uncontested “success” in the popular discourse. But Cairo was not about the “Muslim world.” This was essentially a speech to Arab Muslims, perhaps to the Iranians as well, but mainly to Middle Easterners. It was not a genuine “speech to the Muslim world” and any analysis of it as such would be facile. It was made with an eye primarily towards backing up an Egyptian regime that felt neglected under the Bush administration, which had undermined it by pushing the “freedom agenda” imprudently. It was first and foremost a speech for Hosni Mubarak, not the Egyptian or other Muslim peoples. Insofar as it was directed at other Muslims, it was meant for Iraqis, Lebanese, North Africans, Gulf Arabs and Iranians. It touched on European and American Muslims as a means of making points to the other populations. It gave no evidence of any practical change in American policy or attitudes toward the region, except that “democracy promotion” would not be a cornerstone of his Middle East policy. It was artfully done and deserves some commendation. But it must be recognized for what it was.

Most Muslims were intelligent enough to discern that a speech made by a politician (and American writers sometimes forget that President Obama is a politician, not a prophet) is a political speech. Like the Russians, many Arabs are quite jaded towards politics and politicians. For them to take a more optimistic of the United States based on the Cairo speech would be in itself surprising: on what basis have they to do so, other than his word? After the last eight, or more, years one cannot expect a happy speech, without concrete signs of “progress” away from the old way of doing things, to change many minds. Closing down Guantanamo? Not quite yet. Is life for Afghans or Pakistanis less bloody? Not really. Does the United States still support the governments that those polls generally suffer under? Yes. Will it continue to for the foreseeable future? Almost absolutely.So why exactly is there an expectation that their views would change? Because Mr. Obama is asking them to?

From the very beginning of his campaign there was an over estimation of the ability of now President Obama to “change” the views of Muslims. “His face,” wrote Andrew Sullivan, by a “re-branding of the United States,” would deter terrorists. Utter nonsense. That’s what it was, and that’s what it remains. That he is black, that his father was a Muslim, and all the other bits of his personal narrative that appealed Europeans and American liberals, hold little importance for those for whom survival is a more dogged pursuit, be they Pakistani villagers, Iranian clerics struggling for international legitimacy or young men in refugee camps. He presides over a nation-state whose interests are well known and whose efforts to protect of those interests often means clashing with foreign peoples, Muslims included. No speech is going to change the real life implications of American power. Improving the American relationship and image with the “Muslim world” will require more diligence, forethought and seriousness than some in the pundit class would like to think. And even then, one must ask: To what point can our relations with certain predominantly Muslim countries be improved? In Iran, perhaps Pakistan, and Libya there are very fundamental points of disagreement on world order that are not the result of religion or ideology, but simply the bare national interest.

Muslim leaders and populations look at the world much the same as others do; from the stand point of their own material, cultural and economic interests. No matter what Barack Obama says to Muslims or anyone else, they will always put their own interests first just as he will always put America’s first. How can one be surprised that the numbers have not changed by leaps and bounds in countries where the American policy has not changed significantly beyond a few well choreographed speeches and YouTube videos? The American policy on most things, from Iran’s nuclear program and regional position generally to who it supports in Lebanon or its awkwardly outspoken ineptitude on the Palestinian question, are not significantly different than they have been in previous years. What has changed is the tone of how all this goes on. Israelis may not like to be called out on their misdeeds; but he has yet to do much to make them quit building their settlements or from doing whatever else they please. There has been nothing remarkably “pro-Arab” or “pro-Palestinian” in anything he has done as of yet. That in mind, what seems to irritate some in the American pro-Israel camp is that he dare to speak positively, to “fawn over,” to “slobber on,” to “adulate” the Muslim world and not Israel. His language, in their eyes, has been impolitic; he has told Israel to engage in self-reflection. This is unusual language for an American leader, but his policy has been conventional. No wonder the Palestinians polled don’t have numbers more like the Germans; has Obama done anything to halt the construction of settlements? And it should be said that his stance on the settlements is the same as his predecessors’. But then again, the Germans have money, and thus more room for optimism than those in the Occupied Territories. Mr. Obama’s manner of international politics is quite good, let there be no mistake about it. But outside of the realm of domesic gaming, not much has changed in the interval since he entered office. It ought to be expected that some are happy and others are not. He is after all, but a man.

6 thoughts on “A face, it seems, is not enough: Barack Obama and Muslim opinion

  1. Great post, Kal. If I may, I’d like to add a small criticism too. When you mention Pakistan, you write very rightfully that many Pakistani are worried or even angered by the American (Obama’s) current policy and its consequences in and beyond their border. That is true, however, their situation has been also largely the result of their own policies (of funding and harboring Talibans on their own soil as a chip in the great game being played in Kandahar and Kabul).

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