When US President Barack Obama says he wants to reach out to
the Muslim world, he�s on the right track. Judging by polls conducted in this
region and beyond, the rift between Muslims and the US is vast. And who can
blame them when Iraq and Afghanistan are still under US occupation while there
has been no progress toward a Palestinian state?
But those who are waiting with bated breath for Obama�s much
touted speech scheduled to be given at Cairo University on Thursday shouldn�t
expect too much. Obama may be a maestro at delivering pretty phrases designed
to bolster his popularity, but mostly his speeches are long on noble sentiments
and short on substance. Will this one be any different?
According to some pundits, Obama may use this opportunity to
speak from the heart of the Arab world to disclose his plan for a 57-state solution,
a comprehensive peace plan that would include not only Israelis and
Palestinians but also the entire Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia. But
given the current stalemate between his administration and the new Israeli
government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who can hardly bear to utter the words
�two-state solution,� I wouldn�t bet your home on it.
In any case, even if he does bring up this innovative and
ambitious strategy, he would be perceived as having his head in the clouds,
someone who wants to run before he can walk. He can, however, show that he
means business by talking tough on Israel�s continued settlement expansion and
the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. He must also refrain
from employing the same tired old clich�s so often used by American leaders to
chastise the Palestinians, who are, after all, the victims of a six-decade-long
We�ve heard enough about the overwhelmingly homemade rockets
of Hamas which mostly land on sand. Now is the time he should show his sympathy
with the people of Gaza who have endured an Israeli onslaught that robbed 1,400
lives and still subsist under siege, which he has thus far failed to do. This
should not be an occasion to pander to the Israelis or AIPAC or attempt to
display faux impartiality. He must come down on the side of right or risk being
dismissed as someone who wants to fudge the issue rather than risk offending
his country�s prime Middle East ally.
If he�s serious about winning Muslim hearts and minds, he
should use this moment to unequivocally make his feelings known on the Iraq war
waged under false pretexts that harmed millions, and he must reassure Iraqis
that he does, indeed, intend to withdraw US troops in 2011.
Further, he should apologize to the Muslim world for the
crimes committed against ordinary Muslims by the previous administration, which
post-Sept. 11, 2001, tarred all Muslims with the same extremist brush. In
particular, he should say sorry to the thousands of Muslims who were rounded up
following that tragedy and incarcerated for months in secret American
facilities without being allowed to contact lawyers or family, and who, without
exception, proved to be entirely innocent. I still recall how many were bumped
off flights merely for wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing or because they
were praying, while others were held under suspicion because they donated to a
Muslim charitable organization. He needs to display disgust over the bestial
way detainees at Abu Ghraib were treated even if he has refused to allow the
publication of new photographs due to concerns over a backlash against American
troops. And he should make it clear that he intends following through on his
promise to close Guantanamo within a year of his inauguration even if he does
come up against logistical problems.
Moreover, he should clarify his Iran policy. Prior to his
election, he promised to open talks with the Iranian leadership without
preconditions but, so far, he has made no progress in this direction apart from
a jolly video New Year message to the Iranian people. The people of this region
need to know whether he really favors the use of diplomacy to allay fears of a
nuclear-armed Iran or whether he will give Netanyahu the much-coveted green
light to strike Iran�s nuclear facilities.
In the meantime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should
refrain from lecturing Egypt on human rights. For one thing, now is not the
time, and for another, people in glass houses shouldn�t throw stones. As long
as Guantanamo exists and as long as detainees are deprived of habeas corpus, no
representative of the US has the appropriate moral standing to judge another
country�s actions. Provided Obama�s speech shows genuine contrition for all the
pain and indignity that has been heaped upon Muslims over the last eight years,
he will be able to mend bridges. But the likelihood of that is remote as
America�s right wing is already complaining loudly about the commander in
chief�s propensity toward apologizing overseas.
Here, in Egypt, most of the people I�ve spoken to concerning
Obama�s fleeting visit are either skeptical or disinterested. They don�t want
words, they want action. I personally believe President�s Obama�s motives are
good but whether he has the courage to stand firmly on his principles, I doubt.
Let�s hope that this time he proves us all wrong.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.