Obama and Islam
Stefano Allievi 15 April 2009

Stefano Allievi is Professor of Sociology at the University of Padua. He has written several books on Islam; last one “Le trappole dell’immaginario: Islam e Occidente” (Forum Edizioni) in 2007.

It might not have been Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner, but it could have the same political consequences. And we may not see it from Europe, but for the tired and disenchanted Arab and Muslim world, exasperated by a long history of humiliations and defeats now strengthened by the war in Gaza, the interview President Obama released to al-Arabiya is more than a breath of fresh air: it’s a sign of change and political turnover, something we weren’t ready to expect from the United States. Obama’s challenge was tougher than Kennedy’s: Kennedy was addressing Europe, particularly an affected and defeated Germany, waiting for the speech of the Messiah as well as for the fundamental material aid the Americans were already providing to. Obama, instead, is speaking to an Arab world less and less pro-American and more and more criticizing, in which older resentments outcropped and exploded during Bush’s era, who fed those resentments and never really understood Islam. Obama’s words foresee a mild turnover: we’ll see where these words will lead to. When the President stated that “people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions”, he informed clearly that there’s already a plan of action in the White House.

Probably the plan will be presented in the longed speech going to come from a Muslim capital, within the first hundred of days of the mandate. We are already aware of the new policy: end of overweening unilateralism (and, for what concerns the Muslim world, a blatantly pro-Israelis policy), Guantanamo’s closure, troops withdrawal from Iraq, serious commitment for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; even a different attitude towards Iran, according a scheme that looks forward to deal with the enemies, instead of demonizing them. Obama has confirmed that Israel will remain a strong ally of the Us, since the contrary would have been astonishing. But Obama spoke about ‘strong ally’ and not ‘close’ ally. He didn’t speak about the Western bulwark in the Middle East, as in the rhetoric of the past years. Meanwhile, Israelis Minister of Defense Barak suspended his visit in the United States. This could be seen as a break to get ready and to reflect upon the change in the US administration attitude. It has surely more to do with this than with the death of an Israelis soldier in a Hamas ‘attack given as justification.

The cultural shift couldn’t be more sharper. It has evident symbolical issues: Obama chose an Arab network for his first international interview, knowing that its impact would have been global. It was something new even on the linguistic side: “We are going to use the language of respect” is something that Arab and Muslims are not used to hear from the United States. For what concerns his relationship with the Arabs and Muslims, Obama defined himself as: “listening, respectful”. He insisted on this: “We are ready to begin a new partnership, based on mutual respect and interests”. “Start by listening instead of start by dictate” is one of the most committed and powerful sentences of the interview, and it is almost unbelievable for the Arabs. Here Obama’s personal background has a part in the game. He mentions it in the conversation and uses it as medium to build empathy. The core of the message is addressed to his electorate and is grounded on a double commitment: communicate to the Muslims that “the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect” and to the Americans that “the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives”, more and less like they want. We are thousand of years apart-away from the “axis of evil” rhetoric.

How did the Arabs react? Some cried (as for a veil finally falling apart, more than for joy), some expressed enthusiasm, some shy disclosure. Some – the most of them – are waiting with caution. But there is also who is disenchanted or accuses the President to be a double-dealer. It’s not casual that even on the super efficient and moderate television network that hosted the interview, almost the 15% of the reactions were negative. Some reactions even echoing the racist language used by Al Qaeda’s number two in chief, Al Zawahiri, who in a message soon after Obama’s election called him “house slave”. There’s also a quite few of people who criticize Obama for not being Muslim as his father (even if this wouldn’t serve the Muslim cause since Obama, as a Muslim, would have never become President of the United States). Even Hamas chose anachronistic tones to comment Obama’s interview: “For Hamas there’s no difference between Bush and Obama” declared the movement’s spokesperson Osama Hamdan from Beirut to Al Jazeera. “This would lead him to make Bush’s same mistakes, which set the region on fire instead of steadying it”. Obama is destined to “other four years of failures in the Middle East”.

In the civil society of many Muslim countries, especially the Arab ones, though, the interview arouse interest ad sympathy, confirming Obama’s words in his already historical inauguration speech, who sounded as a distrust towards those autocrats leader, or fake democrats Western allies, who tend to stay attached to their power till they’re almost done and whose succession will lead to dramatic crisis and turnover: “We’re looking for new paths for the Middle East, based on mutual respect and interests. To those leaders who set the conflict on fire attributing the damages in their societies to Western countries: You will be judged on what you’ve built, not what you’ve destroyed. To those who arrive to power through corruption and dishonesty and awing dissent, I warn you that you are on the wrong side of History; but you will find an extended hand from us, if you’re ready to unclench your fist”.

And what does Europe say? The Palestinian wound still bleeds in the European branch of the Muslim umma. Words won’t be enough. But hope is in the air. Even if the Muslims, especially the Arabs, are used to see failure in the radical change intentions professed by their new leaders (as already seen in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Syria), which are usually never kept. Hope is a Muslim virtue and, as we know, is also the last thing to give up. Seen it from Italy, it gets another shade: the hope, nowadays far to be true, that something will change also at home. The hope that the blind Anti-Muslims of Bush’s era, translated in Italy in the subculture of Fallacism widespread even in the most critics moments of the confrontation by the higher politicians in charge, will achieve words that are more sensed and civil. This seems to be still far away; Obama doesn’t belong in Italy yet, the wind of change he carries with him it’s not perceivable.
His cultural influence, in this part of the world, is just not still visible.

Translated by Claudia Durastanti