Khalaf Al Habtoor
Gulf News (Opinion)
June 9, 2009 - 12:00am

US President Barack Obama's peaceful sentiments towards the Muslim world are viewed with distrust or cynicism by some in this region and, to a point, that's understandable.

I'm not given to wishful thinking and I'm definitely not naïve, but if we truly want to move forward we should do so with open hearts and minds while resisting the temptation to tar this American leader with the same brush as his predecessor.

This is a very different man from George W. Bush. His personality is nuanced, his knowledge impressive. He has shown a capacity for empathy, and he certainly didn't get where he is because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Moreover, his parentage, early days in Indonesia and his Muslim college friends have together enriched his understanding of Islam as a religion of tolerance and peace.

The Independent's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk was particularly scathing in his analysis of Obama's speech last Thursday at Cairo University.

"When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam - the 'light of learning' in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance - it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet," he wrote.

That may sound like a clever analogy but, in reality, it has no basis.

Everything that Obama said with regards to the historical contribution of Muslims happens to be factual and there was no indication in the speech that any unpleasant "visit to the vet" was scheduled.

On the contrary, Obama's words were drenched in the spirit of new beginnings. The very fact that he travelled to Egypt to speak to them in such a respectful way, and has ensured that his speech was transcribed in 13 languages for Muslims in more than 200 countries, proves his good intent.

Overall, Obama's address was positive. Firstly, he refrained from using the loaded words 'terrorist' or 'terrorism', preferring 'extremism' and admitted that post-September 11, 2001, America's government sometimes acted "contrary to our traditions and our ideals".

Secondly, he made known his rejection of colonialism and the forceful imposition of American-style democracy on other countries.

He even brought up America's toppling of a democratically-elected Iranian premier, referring to the 1953 US-backed coup against Mohammad Mossadaq, punished for attempting to nationalise the Anglo-American Oil Company.

Nobody can disagree with his call for human rights, religious freedoms and the rights of women, which are universal values to which every nation should aspire.

His assurances concerning the ultimate closure of Guantanmo Bay, his rejection of torture as a method of garnering intelligence, along with his promise that there will be no American military bases in Iraq following the withdrawal of US troops in 2012 are also welcome.

Moreover, he admitted that, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that "reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible".

Those of us who grieve for up to a million men, women and children who fell as a result of that war needed to hear this clear-cut clarification.

Praise for Islam and hints of apology aside, the real gem in Obama's speech concerned the plight of Palestinians and their aspirations towards their own state. On this topic, which deeply concerns every Arab, various aspects of his address were groundbreaking.

For the first time ever, a sitting US president has sympathised with Palestinian suffering in no uncertain terms. While calling upon the Palestinians to reject violence in pursuance of their cause as violence has "harmed their moral authority", he likened their struggle to that of South Africans under apartheid and "black people in America" who "suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation".

On the subject of Israeli colony expansion, he was unequivocal. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements [colonies]," which "violate previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace," he said.

He also exhorted Israel to take concrete steps to ensure Palestinians can "live, and work, and develop in their society", while highlighting the "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza".

Similarly enlightening was his reference to Occupied Jerusalem, which Israel eyes for its capital city, as a place for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

In the aftermath of last Thursday's speech, there were a number of commentators who dismissed his calls as mere words or empty rhetoric without substance. But Obama has since proved them wrong.

During his subsequent visit to Europe, he persuaded the French president and the German chancellor to publicly join with him in demanding that Israel stops colony building and works towards a two-state solution.

In the meantime, the EU is considering freezing the upgrading of Israel's status and there is discussion on whether imports of produce grown by Israeli colonists should be restricted.

These are all worthwhile first steps but as Obama has illuminated on more than one occasion, this process must be a two-way street. During a joint press conference with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, he emphasised that "the Arab states have to be a part of this process".

"It's not sufficient just to point at the Palestinian problem and then say we are not going to engage, we're not going to take responsibility. They are going to have to step up as well& And to the extent that they put their shoulder behind the wheel, that can move the process forward in a significant way," he said.

I couldn't agree with him more. It's time that Arab states stepped up to the plate diplomatically and financially. This is not just an Israeli-Palestinian problem, it is also a regional problem. We rightly expect the US to be proactive, but our leaders need to be equally so if not more so.

Enough of the 'woe is me' attitude. Enough of dissecting past hurts. The past is the past. No one can change it. But with enough will and goodwill, together we can make tomorrow a better and brighter day.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017