`Assalamu-alaikum`, US President Barack Obama had greeted thousands of cheering Muslims in Cairo at the beginning of his historic speech in June 2009. The speech was aimed at improving US’ ties with the Muslim world.
The US’ image had suffered a major blow because of its ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was not easy for Obama to undo the damage done by his predecessor, George W Bush. But he extended a hand of friendship to the Muslim world in Cairo.
A year later, the US’ ties with the Muslim community are not much different despite the President’s efforts.
In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Alex Vatanka discusses Obama’s progress as far as ties with the Muslim world are concerned.
Alex Vatanka is the editor of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst.
Kamna: How do you rate US President Barack Obama’s performance in maintaining ties with the Islamic world a year after his historic speech in Cairo? Do you think he has been able to walk the talk?
Alex: President Obama was generally well-received in the Islamic world, and he continues to enjoy above-average approval ratings among Islamic people as compared to George W Bush and Bill Clinton. However, the fact that there is a lessened optimism about what he can achieve in the minds of Arabs and Muslims is undeniable.
I think the sentiment in the Arab world has particularly been impacted by the lack of any tangible progress on the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel. Elsewhere also, we see very tense moments in the Turkish-US relations, and that is notable given the size and influence of Muslim-majority Turkey.
In another major Muslim state, the Iranian population remains largely neutral about Obama. But put in another way, there is no ‘walk the talk’ as such. The Islamic world is so diverse, with so many different issues at play that on a tangible level there is nothing any US President can do to deliver for the entire ummah. On a lower level, there are things such as closing Guantanamo that might have given Obama good headlines in the Muslim world for a brief period, but these are also tied to domestic political and security realities.
Kamna: Obama’s not-so-tough reaction to Israel’s deadly raid on an aid flotilla to Gaza indicates that the US President’s tenure might end leaving dashed hopes in the Middle East. Comment.
Alex: One can`t turn a 60+ year alliance around overnight, and I genuinely don`t think that President Obama is less interested in Israel, as his critics suggest. However, his administration has seen a deterioration in relations because of the US criticism of some of Tel Aviv`s actions (Jerusalem settlements, Dubai killing, flotilla raid, etc). In other words, while he can`t deliver on the hopes of Arabs as such, he has shown to be more critical of Israel than the previous administration.
Kamna: How can Obama repair the damage wrought by his predecessor, George W Bush, and strengthen ties with the Muslim world? Do you think Obama is willing to pay attention to the fears as well as aspirations of young Muslims in the US, and across the world to help bring real change in societies?
Alex: Obama is the most powerful man in the world, but he is still the President of only one country. There is so much he can do to change individual lives. He can set the tone in US foreign policy, but that`s what can be done often at this broad level (US versus Muslim world).
Look, the aspirations of which "Muslim people"? The ones in Iran and Syria who want to get rid of their regimes or the south Yemenis who want to break away from Sana’a, or the respective Shia/Sunni, religious/secular, Tajik/Pashtun, interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list is long. It is impractical to talk about steps that can be taken by a US president to changes lives across such a diverse nation of people.
However, there are symbolic issues that can help his image in the Muslim world and none is more important than making headway in the Arab/Israeli conflict. So far, Obama has not delivered on this; maybe he can do more in the next two years than he did in the first two.