Can Obama woo the Muslim world?

Obama went to Cairo to woo the Muslim world. But one lofty speech won’t stop America from being loat

Ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Muslims whom I know, both in Britain and abroad, have taken an almost morbid pleasure in telling one particular joke about George Bush and Tony Blair. It seems that the two leaders are sitting at a White House dinner, whispering to one another in the corner, when a diplomat from a friendly nation walks over to them and asks what they are discussing.

“We’re finalising our plans for World War III,” says Bush.
“Really?” says the diplomat. “And what are the plans?”
“We’re planning a war which will kill 14 million Muslims and one dentist,” answers Bush.
A look of confusion appears on the face of the diplomat. “One . . . dentist?” he asks. “Why? Why would you kill one dentist?”
At which point, Bush turns to Blair and smirks: “I told you no one would give a damn about the Muslims.”

Some might argue that such black humour is illustrative of the paranoid and distrustful modern Muslim psyche. Perhaps it is – but, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Eight years of disastrous invasions and oc­cupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, belligerent rhetoric towards Iran and Syria, and absolute US support for Israel’s bombardments of Lebanon and Gaza have incited hatred among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

From the very outset, Bush’s so-called war on terror alienated and radicalised Muslims around the world and exacerbated levels of anti-American feeling. According to a Zogby poll, for example, between 2002 and 2004, the proportion of Egyptians with negative attitudes towards the United States jumped from 76 per cent to 98 per cent – that is, almost the entire country.

Egypt is where Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated set-piece speech to the Islamic world, at Cairo University on 4 June – less than two months after a similar address to the Turkish parliament in Istanbul, where he pronounced that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam”.

Where getting a fair hearing is concerned, Obama benefits not simply from not being Bush, but also from charisma, background and a reputation as a calm, moderate politician.

“In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, [US poll] ratings took a sharp dip after the invasion of Iraq,” says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. “They never permanently recovered anywhere during the Bush years. Now we’re seeing them recover in 2009.”

Such is the weight given to her views and insights into the Muslim mindset that Obama appointed the 33-year-old Mogahed to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, making her the first veiled woman to gain a position in the White House.

In the run-up to Obama’s speech in Cairo, Mogahed reiterated to reporters the importance of the president conveying to his global Muslim audience “the idea of respect, co-operation, and a demonstration of empathy”. Her own polling suggests that one of the most important things the US can do to improve relations with Muslims is to refrain from seeing them as being in any way inferior or backward.

For my part, however, I don’t think Mogahed goes far enough. Poll after poll in the Islamic world has demonstrated that, above all else, Muslim anti-Americanism is shaped not by cultural, religious or ideological factors, but by US policies, chief among them support for Israel and, more recently, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked, “What is the first thought when you hear ‘America’?”, Muslim respondents to the 2004 Zogby poll of six Arab nations overwhelmingly answered: “Unfair foreign policy.” And when asked what the US could do to improve its image and rebuild relations with the Islamic world, the most common answers were: “Stop supporting Israel” and “Change your Middle East policy”.

This is not new. Over half a century ago, in 1958, President Eisenhower described “the campaign of hatred [in the Arab world] against us, not by the governments but by the people”. His own National Security Council concluded that the “majority of Arabs” saw the US as “opposed to realisation of the goals of Arab nationalism” and interested only in protecting “its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress”.

Yet, bizarrely, in more recent years, the Bush administration and its acolytes in the media refused to concede any link at all, not even the slightest, between its policies in the Middle East – often intrusive and militaristic – and the consequent terrorist blowback, preferring instead to push the simplistic, almost childish, formula: “They hate us because we are free.”

What often goes unmentioned is that the Bush administration’s own independent advisers disagreed – and did so publicly. The Defence Science Board is a little-known 40-member federal advisory committee to the Pentagon, staffed by civilian experts from a variety of diplomatic, military, academic and business backgrounds. The board’s voluminous and usually technical reports have a tendency to focus on rather abstruse and recondite issues such as “Achieving Interoperability in a Net-Centric Environment” or “Logistics Transformation Phase II”.

In recent years, however, the one exception to this rule has been the scathing, if not devastating Report of the Defence Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, produced in 2004, examining the effect of Bush’s various wars on America’s allies and enemies.

Its conclusions are as stark as they are damning: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

“The overwhelming majority,” says the report, “voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states”.

How did the Bush administration react to the report? By burying it. Despite being completed on 23 September 2004, the report was quietly shelved by the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, until after the November presidential election that year – thereby denying it the maximum political impact. Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House adviser under President Clinton and consummate Washington insider, pointed out at the time that the report was “silently slipped on to a Pentagon website on Thanksgiving eve, and barely noticed by the US press”.

Frustratingly, in the lone story in the New York Times which covered the report, the author quoted from the paragraph that began: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” – but then omitted the crucial following sentence about what Muslims do object to: “. . . one-sided [US] support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights” as well as support for Muslim tyrannies. The Times did, however, include the sentence that immediately followed the missing one, suggesting that the author or his editors deliberately removed the crucially revealing yet controversial middle sentence from the paragraph.

It is no wonder that the 22-year CIA veteran and former head of the agency’s Osama Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, believes there has long been a conspiracy of silence among political and media elites in the United States about the real reasons for Muslim hatred of America. In his acclaimed book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, published in 2004, Scheuer argued that “while there may be a few Muslim militants out there who would blow up themselves and others because they are offended by McDonald’s restaurants, Iowa’s early presidential primary, and the semi-nude, fully pregnant Demi Moore on Esquire’s cover, they are exactly that: few, and no threat at all to US National Security”.

Rather, he wrote, “the United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific government policies and actions”.

Five years on, Michael Scheuer says that he has no faith in Barack Obama’s ability to turn the tide of hatred, or to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Obama has “no intention of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan”, Scheuer told me. “In other words, his foreign policy in the Middle East is the [same as the] Republicans’ but with a softer voice.”

I am not so sure.

Obama may indeed have intensified the US war in Afghanistan and extended it to Pakistan, and he may have remained shamefully silent during the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, when he was president-elect, but in other areas policy seems to be changing – even if only very slowly. The Obama administration has, for example, belatedly demanded that Israel freeze its settlement-building activities in the occupied territories, made diplomatic overtures to Tehran, forbidden torture and pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

There have been small yet not insignificant changes in other areas, too. As a victim of what one liberal commentator once called the “preventive war on innocent tourists” at US airports during the Bush era, and having been detained by Homeland Security for several hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, in 2006 simply for having the terrorist-sounding surname “Hasan”, I can testify to the changed atmosphere in the Obama era. In May this year, on my return to Bush Intercontinental, I was welcomed by a smiling immigration officer who waved me through passport control.

As countless commentators and analysts have noted, Obama is the change that he promised. This applies at home and abroad, and especially vis-à-vis the US and its fraught relations with the Muslim world. The mere presence of Obama in the White House begins to address the “fundamental problem of [US] credibility” highlighted by the Defence Science Board report of 2004. “Simply there is none,” it concluded at the time, adding that “the United States is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam”.

This is emphatically no longer the case. The fact remains that when America’s new president stood up on 4 June to deliver his speech in Cairo, his sceptical, distrustful and largely disillusioned global Muslim audience was confronted by not a swaggering Texan cowboy with a tendency to talk of war, crusades and Islamic fascists, but a black man, with the middle name “Hussein”, born to a Muslim father and raised in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, by a Muslim stepfather. Obama, in and of himself, embodies America’s “channel of communication” to the Islamic world, and it is his name, his heritage and his appearance that will help him to begin breaking down the barriers between the two cultures.

But it won’t be enough.

Fundamentally, the likes of Michael Scheuer and the Defence Science Board are correct. If Obama cannot pledge and deliver on meaningful and long-lasting changes to radicalising US policy in the region, if he cannot bring himself to confront the Muslim view of America’s actions as it is – and not as he and predecessors assume it to be – if his actions don’t speak louder than his words, then no amount of lofty rhetoric or stentorian intonation in Cairo, or, for that matter, Istanbul, will make even the slightest bit of difference. Nor will his appearance, background or “Islamic” heritage.

On the contrary, as Scheuer put it to me, rather bluntly: “Muslims are not stupid. They will demand that President Obama’s words be matched with deeds – and if he fails to deliver, his looks, name and ethnicity will make the negative Muslim reaction even worse.”

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics)