Obama & the Arabs: Why Muslims See Him as One Of Them
by AMIR TAHERI
October 28, 2008
'OBAMA! Inshallah!" – Obama! Allah willing! That slogan, scribbled on walls in Gaza, indicates the hopes that Barack Obama has inspired among Arabs.
While Obama has tried to push his origins into the background, his "Islamic roots" have won him a place in many Arabs' hearts.
One columnist, Mohamed Al-Menshawi, hails Obama as "the candidate with Muslim roots" and as the "harbinger of solidarity between Americans and the Muslim world."
Another, Al-Jazeera's Aala al-Bayoumi, notes: "Had it not been for Obama, Arabs would not even bother to follow the US presidential race." What makes the difference is Obama's "Islamic and African roots."
Marwan Bishara hails Obama's "radical politics": "For the U.S. to vote in an African-American progressive liberal would certainly mark a departure from the hyper and violent conservatism of the Bush-McCain camp," he writes. An Obama presidency "would be better for both the US and the Arab world."
Obama especially appeals to pan-Arab nationalists angry at the United States for having ousted Saddam Hussein. Obama's promise to leave Iraq gives pan-Arabs their only chance (albeit slim) to destroy the new Iraqi democracy.
While radical Arabs, including the Hamas leadership, favor Obama, most Arab officials are wary of him. They fear his inexperience and leftist connections might destroy all that has been gained in Iraq, provoke a bigger mess in Afghanistan, trigger a war with Pakistan and open the way for Khomeinist hegemony in the region.
Note that Obama wouldn't be the first politician with Muslim roots to lead a major non-Muslim country. Carlos Menem, a Muslim of Syrian descent, served as Argentina's president from 1989 to 1999. But he dropped his Arab-Islamic first name and adopted his baptismal Christian name before entering politics.
Obama, by contrast, has retained his Arabic-Islamic names. (Barack means "blessed" and Hussein means "beautiful.") His family name is Swahili, an East African lingua franca based on Arabic. Arab commentators note that his siblings also all have Arabic Muslim names. His sister is called Oumah, Arabic for "the community of the faithful his older daughter, Malia, bears the name of a daughter of the Caliph Othman, who commissioned the compilation of the first edition of the Koran. That Obama's stepfather was also a Muslim (from Indonesia) strengthens the empathy that many Arabs feel for him.
The Syrian regime has also indicated its preference for Obama, not least because President Bush forced it to end its 29-year military occupation of Lebanon. Buthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, has welcomed Obama's call for radical change in US policy. She writes, "The change suggested by Obama is essential not only for the US but for the entire human family."
Also enthusiastic for Obama is the Lebanese Hezbollah. The party's No. 2, Sheik Naim al-Kassim, went as far as inviting Americans to vote Obama as a step toward peace with Islam. (The party disowned his comments as "personal opinion.") Pro- Hezbollah columnist Amal Saad-Ghorayeb has no doubt that Arabs should welcome an Obama presidency because "African-Americans are more sympathetic to Arabs because they, too, are oppressed."
Hussein Shobokshi, a liberal Saudi commentator, predicts that "Obama's ascent to power in America would mark an important moral transformation in the superpower and is a healthy indicator of the long-awaited improvement in the international arena." He envisages a new system in America in which "nongovernmental institutions will participate in the political decision-making process in an effective manner," while "capitalism will undergo fundamental adjustment."
Another liberal writer, Diana Makkled, sees Obama's success as a sign that America is still the place where dreams are realized. That a man with a Muslim-African background might become president "could only take place in the U.S., not in the banana republics we live in," she writes.
Arabs welcomed and widely commented on Colin Powell's assertion that, even if Obama were a Muslim, it should not be held against him.
Some columnists have also noted Obama's close ties to a number of Palestinian radicals, including Rashid Khalidi and the late Edward Said, as signs that the senator would change US Middle East policy in the Arabs' favor. Strengthening that impression was an interview the Rev. Jessie Jackson granted to several Arab media outlets, including Al-Jazeera and the popular Internet newspaper Elaph, in which he promised an end to the United States' allegedly pro-Israel policy.
Not all Arab commentators are struck by Obamania, however. His flip-flops on issues – including the future of Jerusalem, withdrawal from Iraq and dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat – have prompted some to counsel caution.
Tareq Al-Houmayed, editor of the daily Asharq Alawsat, warns Arabs not to expect too much: "Every American president would be governed by American interests. Obama's understanding of politics is not important here."
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a Saudi commentator, also notes that no president can radically alter U.S. global policies. He advises Arabs to neither have exaggerated hopes nor be dispirited when Obama tells the Israelis "more than they hoped to hear" to win Jewish support.
Amir Taheri writes for the New York Post. His latest book, The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, is due out next month.