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The Arabs and Obama

Lee Smith

Last week Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Tamara Coffman Wittes reported from a conference in Qatar that Barack Obama’s candidacy is all the rage in the Arab Gulf states.

A friend from the Gulf tells me her young relative was so excited about the Democratic candidate that he tried to donate money over the Internet, as he’d heard so many young Americans were doing. Then he found out he had to be a U.S. citizen to do so. Another young woman, visiting from next-door Saudi Arabia, said that all her friends in Riyadh are for Obama. The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia, certainly speaks to Muslims abroad.

That’s an interesting way to make a point lost on most American commentators: Barack Obama’s father was Muslim and therefore, according to Islamic law, so is the candidate. In spite of the Quranic verses explaining that there is no compulsion in religion, a Muslim child takes the religion of his or her father.

The point of course is not that Obama is really a Muslim, because in America he is whatever he says he is. American ideas about such things as choice, religion, freedom of expression including the freedom to choose your own faith are different from the rest of much of the world. For us, a man is whatever religion he wants to practice, or not practice. But for Muslims around the world, non-American Muslims at any rate, they can only ever see Barack Hussein Obama as a Muslim.

It’s useful keeping in mind that difference between how Americans see our lives and our actions and how others see us, given that one of the chief conceits of the Obama campaign is that a president of his biological identity will redeem our reputation around the world after George Bush enflamed the better part of humanity by invading two Muslim countries.

Or, as Fareed Zakaria put it:

We’re moving into a very new world For America to thrive, we will have to develop a much deeper, richer, more intuitive understanding of them and their peoples. There are many ways to attain this, but certainly being able to feel it in your bones is one powerful way.

Perhaps this is the only obvious strategy available to a presidential candidate whose Washington experience to date has afforded him little time to grasp the niceties of policy-making. And indeed there’s already evidence that some Middle Easterners, or the people in whose part of the world the United States has expended vast human and material resources over the last six years, are not impressed with Obama.

Over at From Beirut to the Beltway, Abu Kais gives low scores to a recent Obama recent speech about Lebanon.

From Now Lebanon:

Washington must rectify the wrong policy of President George Bush in Lebanon and resort to an efficient and permanent diplomacy, rather than empty slogans, [Obama] added. He also said that the US must cooperate with its European and Arab allies to sponsor an inter-Lebanese consensus on a stable and democratic Lebanon.

To which Abu Kais replies:

What kind of diplomacy that has not been tried before by the Europeans and Arab allies will help Lebanon? I am not going to defend the Bush administration’s policy in Lebanon. It may reek of empty slogans at times, but how does talking to criminals create solutions? And pray explain how supporting the Hariri tribunal, as Obama said he does, can be reconciled with chatting up the ones who killed him?

Lebanese journalist Michael Young and Iraqi blogger Iraqpundit have expressed their reservations about one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, Samantha Power. The self-described Genocide Chick seems to them insufficiently concerned that an American withdrawal from Iraq will lead to genocide. Her solution? Move people from one area to another and give money to Iraq’s neighbors to stabilize the country. You can’t blame her for basically parroting the egregiously cynical recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, but in reality this means that US forces should be complicit in the sectarian cleansing of Iraq and pay off countries like Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia that have themselves funded and supported death squads targeting Iraqi Shias, Kurds and Sunnis as well as US troops.

It’s true that the Lebanese and Iraqis have benefited, and suffered, more than anyone from the Bush White House’s regional transformation program, so you can’t hold it against them if they’re more interested in a man’s ideas than in the faith he professes or the color of his skin.

Other Arabs apparently think that the color of man’s skin should matter, but are not sure it will, like Hezbollah friendly-analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb.

There’s always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they’re oppressed too, Saad-Ghorayeb said. But, she added, that wasn’t really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?

In fact, Secretary Rice really does believe that African-Americans and Arabs have something in common, which is why she has likened, for better or worse, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr. and thrown all her weight behind a Palestinian state that only she seems to believe in at this point. She hasn’t gotten much credit for her efforts, or her race for that matter. When she was named Secretary of State, the Saudi press outdid themselves in lampooning the first black woman to serve as America’s top diplomat.

They exaggerated her features and were amazingly crude and disrespectful in showing her body, Peter Theroux told me. Theroux was asked to serve under Rice as Persian Gulf director from 2003-2005 when she was the National Security Adviser. One cartoon from the daily Al-Watan showed her as a boxer with boxing gloves, hitting a punching bag shaped like an Arab; with her wearing some form-fitting thing that showed the shape of her breasts. You never, ever see Saudi newspaper cartoons show any woman that way, let alone a senior official in an allied government. But with Rice being black, and a woman, an infidel, and wielding power – I think that just pushed them over the edge.

I was in Beirut when she first traveled there as Secretary in the summer of 2005 to show her support for an Arab society that had just come out of fifteen years of Syrian occupation. The pro-Syrian opposition protested her visit, including Hezbollah supporters who marched with placards that would have made a Klansman proud Nr, read one sign with a picture of Ms. Rice’s face, go home.

Sure, there are numerous instances of dark-skinned people who won respect in the Muslim world, like Bilal ibn Ribah, the first muezzin, a slave of East African origins whose allegedly sonorous voice won him the admiration of the prophet of Islam and earned him the right to call the early Muslim community to prayer.

And then there was the revolt of the Zanj, the East African slaves whose uprising in Basra against the Abbasids from 869 to 883 AD is a key historical episode for Arab, especially Iraqi, communists.

But generally, it should come as no surprise to anyone save the most cloistered third-world fantasists, that a society which discriminates against sex, religion, ethnicity, language, nation, tribe, and family is not likely to have very progressive attitudes about race. Arab society, like many others, has a race problem. For instance, abd, or slave, is a word commonly used to refer to blacks, regardless of a man’s stature, or his faith.

Don’t buy a slave unless you get a stick, too, wrote Al-Mutanabi, the incomparable tenth-century Baghdad poet. For slaves are vile and vexing.

The poet directed the line at the black Muslim commander he had once served. I found it posted recently on a Syrian Web site as a comment on Obama’s mild rebuke of the Damascus regime.

So, if we’re concerned about how we look to the rest of the world, we should at least recognize how much of the world looks at things. Laugh as some may about the Bush Administration’s idea to export democracy to the Middle East, they had the basic principle right. The world needs our help more than we need to petition its approval. We are a people who choose our own faith, and, after a civil war and a civil rights movement, a nation where the dignity of each individual human being is accorded respect, and men and women are equal regardless of race, sex, religion or creed.

The Middle East is not like that and George W. Bush thought it wise, for the sake of Arabs and Americans, to try to do something about it, an initiative that inspired some Arabs while it enraged others. (So now guess who the good guys are in the Middle East and who are the bad ones?) What made them like or dislike Bush wasn’t the color of the president’s skin or his religious faith, but his ideas. It’s not clear to me why Americans seem now to be trying to export a very un-American idea – that a man’s color and his faith matter.

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