By Erica Christoffer
President-elect Barack Obama is at a crossroads with the Arab World.
On the one hand, he could continue implementing policies of the Bush Administration and hold his tongue in speaking out against demonizing comments made towards Muslims. But on the other hand, he could follow through with his campaign promises to open up lines of communication and enact policies that would improve relations between the Middle East and the United States.
The Muslim community is hoping for the latter.
Experts point to three main areas – creating dialogue with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq – which must be addressed to gain ground in the Middle East.
“If the problems of the Middle East, Israel-Palestine, the stand-off with Iran, the deadlock with Syria, if they are not addressed they will continue to fester and the region will continue to be a breeding ground for extremism that could be directed toward America,” said Liz Sly, Chicago Tribune’s Middle East correspondent based in Beirut.
Sly said in order for the U.S. to restore its image in the Arab World, progress must be made on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The goal to achieve a Palestinian state that can peacefully co-exist with Israel is one Obama said he hopes to progress.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to be the barometer of Middle East-U.S. relations. If he’s willing to talk to people on the other side of the conflict, that would help,” said Berkeley political science professor Darren Zook.
Wajahat Ali, a Muslim-American commentary writer from Fremont, Calif. who penned the play “The Domestic Crusaders,” said the United States’ unquestioning support of Israel is holding back the peace process. He is not convinced Obama will make any major changes to that policy, however hopeful in that Obama has acknowledged the suffering of Palestinians and is open to discussion.
“Out of all the president, he could bring about change,” Ali said.
Zook characterized the Middle East perception of Obama as “hopeful but uneasy,” especially regarding Obama’s position on Israel-Palestine. “There’s a sense of, ‘what’s really going to change here?'”
Yet signs of change between the U.S. and the 16 countries of the Middle East are already evident, Iranian-born journalist Saideh Jamshidi from Free Speech Radio News pointed out.
For the first time in the history of the United States presidency, in the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, congratulated Barack Obama on his victory. “I think it’s a sign,” Jamshidi said.
Iran will be holding elections in June 2009, where the reform party will be challenging the conservative party currently in power. Ahmadinejad, she said, will run again, but winning is not guaranteed.
“[Iranians] have lost public opinion for that the party has done and what they have said,” Jamshidi said, eager to learn who his opponent will be. “The Iranian people would like to normalize their relationship with the United States.”
Yet she does not think Iran would give up its nuclear development project if the U.S. demands it.
“For Iran, the nuclear power has become a national identity and you do not give up on that,” Jamshidi said. “The speculation of putting down this agenda is very unlikely.”
But neither country will be able to move forward in the region without talking to each other, she said, especially regarding Iraq. Iranians want to stabilize the country, she said. And Iran, which shares long borders with Iraq, is a regional power in both business, military, which could make a difference of Iraq. If they do not open the lines of communication, Iraq will remain in chaos and the United States’ image will continue to suffer throughout the Middle East, Jamshidi said.
As’ad AbuKhalil, political science professor at California State University, Stanislaus, is not as optimistic that Obama’s “change” will come to the Middle East. Nor does he think the Arab World’s “festive” mood, prevalent in the wake of Obama’s election, will last. He believes Obama will provide an “intelligent continuation of the Bush Administration.” The war in Iraq will not end as soon as promised and the U.S. may surge in Afghanistan, he said.
At home, Muslim-Americans are also keeping a keen eye on these issues.
“Bush with his wars and policies and statements has pushed Arab-Americans into the arms of the Democratic Party,” AbuKhalil said.
Yet amid the election frenzy, lines were crossed that depict prejudices still prevalent in America. Arab-Americans took issue with Obama’s refused to vocally condemn those who called him Arab and Muslim with negative connotation. He did not go as far as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said on Meet the Press, “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America.”
Attention was also drawn pre-election to Obama’s relationship with Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American professor and director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. AbuKhalil, who studied under Khalidi in Beirut, was disappointed that Obama never came to his defense.
Khalidi was demonized, said Ali. In a commentary piece he wrote for the Guardian, Ali said, “There is something fundamentally ‘un-American’ about wearing the contemporary Scarlet Letter: Muslim.”
Education is the main issue the social climate is unfavorable to Muslims, said Amina Sharif, Communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago. From a young age growing up in a small town in southern Illinois Sharif noticed a naivety and lack of knowledge amongst those in her community about Muslims and Arabs.
“A lot of Americans don’t realize they have Muslim neighbors,” she said.
Obama, she said, has the opportunity to change this by drawing attention to issues such as racial and ethnic profiling.
“If our government sets the tone for a more open minded, a more tolerant, and accepting American society, then that will transition down to the whole country,” Sharif said.
But Obama’s various promises to groups in America and abroad, begs the question whether he can meet everyone’s needs.
“He has to be an even broker and that’s something that has lacked from previous administration,” Sharif said. “I am really concerned because he is making promises to everybody. I can’t tell right now with his transition team if he’s going to be that champion for peace or if he is going to be more middle of the road.”