Posts Tagged ‘Muslim world’
By Thalif Deen | Inter Press Service
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 6 (IPS) – When the administration of President Barack Obama formally abandoned the longstanding U.S. “war on terror” – perceived by some as a codeword for “war against Islam” – there were hopes of a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world after eight long years of political friction.
A significant shift in U.S. policy was also articulated by Obama when he told a predominantly Muslim audience in Egypt last month that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam.”
The sentiments he expressed, including an appeal for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”, were applauded globally.
But the ground realities, both in the United States and in Western Europe, have not caught up with the widespread political euphoria.
Patrick Martin | wsws.com, 5 June 2009
The speech delivered by US President Barack Obama in Cairo yesterday was riddled with contradictions. He declared his opposition to the “killing of innocent men, women, and children,” but defended the ongoing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US proxy war in Pakistan, while remaining silent on the most recent Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. These wars have killed at least one million Iraqis and tens of thousands in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.
Obama declared his support for democracy, human rights and women’s rights, after two days of meetings with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, two of the most notorious tyrants in the Middle East. He said nothing in his speech about the complete absence of democratic rights in Saudi Arabia, or about the ongoing repression under Mubarak’s military dictatorship. In the days before the US president’s arrival at Al-Azhar University, the campus was raided by Egyptian secret police who detained more than 200 foreign students. Before leaving on his Mideast trip, Obama praised Mubarak as a “steadfast ally.”
While posturing as the advocate of universal peace and understanding, Obama diplomatically omitted any reference to his order to escalate the war in Afghanistan with the dispatch of an additional 17,000 US troops. And he tacitly embraced the policy of his predecessor in Iraq, declaring, “I believe the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.” He even seemed to hedge on the withdrawal deadline of December 2011 negotiated by the Bush administration, which he described as a pledge “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”
Obama rejected the charge that America is “a self-interested empire”—a perfectly apt characterization—and denied that the United States was seeking bases, territory or access to natural resources in the Muslim world. He claimed that the war in Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” provoked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is the same argument made by the Bush-Cheney administration at the time, which deliberately conceals the real material interests at stake. The war in Afghanistan is part of the drive by US imperialism to dominate the world’s two most important sources of oil and gas, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin.
There was of course a distinct shift in the rhetorical tone from the bullying “you’re either with or against us” of George W. Bush to the reassuring “we’re all in this together” of Obama. But as several commentators noted (the New Republic compared the speech line-for-line to that given by Bush to the United Nations on September 16, 2006), if you turned off the picture and the sound and simply read the prepared text, the words are very similar to speeches delivered by Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other officials of the previous administration.
The vague and flowery rhetoric, the verbal tributes to Islamic culture and the equal rights of nations, constitute an adjustment of the language being used to cloak the policy of US imperialism, not a change in substance. Obama made not a single concrete proposal to redress the grievances of the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. That is because the fundamental source of this oppression is the profit system and the domination of the world by imperialism, of which American imperialism is the most ruthless.
Obama made one passing reference to colonialism, and to the US role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. But in his litany of “sources of tension” in the region, he offered the same checklist as his predecessor, with the first place given to “violent extremism”, Obama’s rhetorical substitute for Bush’s “terrorism.”
The reaction to the Obama speech in the American media was across-the-board enthusiasm. Liberal David Corn of Mother Jones magazine said Obama’s great advantages were “his personal history, his non-Bushness, his recognition of US errors, his willingness to at least talk as if he wants to be an honest broker in the Mideast.”
Michael Crowley wrote in the pro-war liberal magazine New Republic, “to see him unfold his biography, to cut such an unfamiliar profile to the world, is to appreciate how much America will benefit from presenting this new face to the world.”
Perhaps most revealing was the comment by Max Boot, a neoconservative arch-defender of the war in Iraq, who wrote: “I thought he did a more effective job of making America’s case to the Muslim world. No question: He is a more effective salesman than his predecessor was.”
In his speech in Cairo, Obama was playing the role for which he was drafted and promoted by a decisive section of the US financial elite and the military and foreign policy apparatus. This role is to provide a new face for US imperialism as part of a shift in the tactics, but not the strategy, of Washington’s drive for world domination.
Nearly two years ago, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski gave his public backing to the presidential candidacy of a still-obscure senator from Illinois, holding out the prospect that as an African-American with family ties to the Muslim world, Obama would improve the worldwide image of the United States.
Brzezinski was the leading hawk in the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter and helped instigate the political upheavals in Afghanistan in the hopes of inciting a Soviet invasion that would trap the Moscow bureaucracy in a Vietnam-style quagmire. He has remained steadily focused on what he calls the “great chessboard” of Eurasia, and particularly on oil-rich Central Asia, where a struggle for influence now rages between the United States, Russia, China and Iran.
According to Brzezinski in August 2007, Obama “recognizes that the challenge is a new face, a new sense of direction, a new definition of America’s role in the world… Obama is clearly more effective and has the upper hand. He has a sense of what is historically relevant and what is needed from the United States in relationship to the world.”
Brzezinski, a ruthless defender of the interests of US imperialism, has repeatedly issued warnings to the American ruling elite of the danger of what he calls the “global political awakening.”
In one particularly pointed comment, he told the German magazine Der Spiegel, only months before he endorsed Obama, that the vast majority of humanity “will no longer tolerate the enormous disparities in the human condition. That could well be the collective danger we will have to face in the next decades.”
To call it by its right name, what the more perceptive elements in the US ruling class fear is world revolution. The effort to prevent such a social upheaval is what impelled them to install Obama in the White House and what set him on his pilgrimage to Cairo.
|By John V. Whitbeck
President Barack Obama’s much anticipated speech in Cairo was truly astounding. After all the months of lead-up and hype, few could have imagined that this speech would contain nothing of substance. Surely Obama would feel the need to announce some new initiative on at least one of the major matters of concern to the Muslim world. Perhaps a decision to develop a fully fleshed-out plan for a two-state solution, unilaterally or with the Quartet and/or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (King Abdallah of Jordan’s “57 Muslim countries” willing to make peace with Israel), dealing with all the difficult issues, and to present it to Israelis and Palestinians as the last best chance for peace based on partition and the acceptance of Israel by the Muslim world. Or perhaps an international conference involving all concerned regional parties to seek solutions to the interlinked problems involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and/or Iran.
Surely he had to have some hopeful surprise up his sleeve. Wrong. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
There were, of course, many eloquent mood-music paragraphs and a smattering of quotes from the Holy Quran (as well as the Bible and the Talmud). Obama obviously believes that America’s unchanged objectives with respect to the Muslim world are more likely to be pursued successfully by being polite and complimentary than by being rude and intentionally insulting. But the mood-music paragraphs dealt with atmospherics or the past. When it came to the present and the future and to concrete matters of American objectives and policies, there was nothing new. Nothing hopeful. Nothing.
He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Afghans and Pakistanis, to whom he implicitly promised perpetual war, saying (in a verbal and intellectual formulation uncharacteristically childish for him) that American troops will keep fighting in their countries so long as there are “violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can” — which there are guaranteed to be so long as the Americans keep fighting in their countries.
He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Iranians, again adopting the views of the Israeli, rather than the American, intelligence agencies on the issue of whether Iran has a current nuclear weapons program and menacing that “when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point”.
He certainly offered nothing new or hopeful to the Iraqis, opining that they were “better off” as a result of America’s invasion of their country.
Most certainly and emphatically, he offered nothing new or hopeful to the Palestinians, promising to pursue a two-state solution “with all the patience that the task requires” — i.e., with no sense of urgency (unlike his pursuit of Iran) and without any firm deadline, as would be essential for there to be even a miniscule hope of success. This commitment to infinite patience constitutes an effective promise to pass the problem on, in an even more intractable and hopeless condition, to his successor.
Gaza? It rated one mention: “The continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.” Israel’s security? Nothing about the holiday-season massacre of over 1300 Gazans? Nothing about the crippling Israeli blockade and siege? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Jerusalem? Obama expressed the hope that the city could become “a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together”. Mingle? In the context of Obama’s repeated references to two states, one might have expected a vision of the city as the shared capital of those two states living together in peace and reconciliation. No. No sharing. That would have contradicted his pledge in his speech to AIPAC’s National Conference last summer. Just a right to mingle, so long as Christians and Muslims did so “peacefully”, without raising awkward questions about any rights in or to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.
And then, of course, Obama had to say this: “To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist” — unbalanced, even in a speech ostensibly intended to reach out to the Muslim world, by any hint that, to be worthy of interaction with civilized people, Israel must renounce violence, recognize past agreements and recognize Palestine’s right to exist.
This tired, morally bankrupt American mantra essentially argues that only the rich, the strong, the oppressors and the enforcers of injustice (notably the Americans and the Israelis) have the right to use violence, while the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the victims of injustice must renounce violence, submit to their fate and accept whatever crumbs their betters may magnanimously deign suitable to let fall from their table — a principle dear to the hearts and minds of those who are happy with the status quo but not one likely to win hearts and minds among those who are not or, indeed, anyone who believes that justice should be pursued and injustice resisted.
As if that were not enough, Obama also felt the need to declare that America’s bonds with Israel are “unbreakable” — a statement one would expect in a speech to AIPAC or on the American campaign trail but one which one would not normally have thought essential to include in this particular speech before this particular audience. At least it is a statement consistent with one of Obama’s Quranic citations — “Speak always the truth”. It constitutes a proclamation (or admission) that America is not and will never be a truly independent nation and that this is just fine with Barack Obama.
If Israelis were looking for assurance that any public “pressure” from Obama to improve their behavior would be purely rhetorical and could be ignored with impunity, here was that assurance.
Nevertheless, one intriguing paragraph in the speech is worth considering: “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. The same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia.”
Comparing the position of today’s Palestinians to that of black slaves in America or native South Africans under that country’s apartheid regime can only be constructive. However, Obama has not thought through the context or his conclusion. As he rightly notes, those oppressed peoples and victims of injustice whom he cites were seeking “full and equal rights”, not the partition of their countries.
If the goal of an oppressed people is to convince a determined and powerful settler-colonial movement which wishes to seize their land, settle it and keep it (eventually emptying it of them and their fellow natives) that it should cease, desist and leave, nonviolent forms of resistance are suicidal. If, however, the goal were to be to obtain the full rights of citizenship in a democratic, nonracist state (as was the case in the American civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement), then nonviolence would be the only viable approach. Violence would be totally inappropriate and counterproductive. The morally impeccable approach would also be the tactically effective approach. The high road would be the only road.
Nonviolence is clearly morally preferable to violence. Democracy and equal rights are clearly morally preferable to apartheid and partition. The better goal and the better tactic are a perfect match, the only match that truly offers hope. If and when the current Palestinian leaderships, or the Palestinian people under a new and better leadership, draw the only rational conclusion from Barack Obama’s Cairo speech — that he offers them neither change nor hope and that they must rely exclusively on themselves in the pursuit of justice — they should courageously press their own “reset” button and unite to pursue democracy and equal rights by nonviolent means.
– John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck”. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” We often think about time and history as a straight line leading from the past, running through the present, heading into the future. With this conceptualization, the past is past and gone. However, there is another way to think about time. Tree time. When we cut down a tree, the rings of the stump are concentric circles of time. The first year exists at the center and each succeeding year surrounds it.
So it is with the meeting of Christianity and Islam on the battle fields of Afghanistan and Iraq. The historical center of the present conflict is the history of the Crusades. Many in the Muslim world consider the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as another Crusade. The Crusades were wars between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Pagans, Christians and Christians over four centuries. It was a tragic time when armies of the state fought to promote a religious cause. Crusaders travelled far from home as warriors and pilgrims, warriors and penitents, warriors as walls to stall the spread of Islam. They won and lost battles. They destroyed and plundered and raped. They were sometimes brutally massacred when the Muslims won on a particular day.
This historical core has not passed from the consciousness of some observers. Enter the U.S. military. The military is full of Christians. Many of these men and women consider themselves as fundamentalist and evangelical. An important part of their religious commitment is to witness to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior and to win souls to Christ. At the same time, the U.S. military has a strict rule against proselytizing. And so the warriors must walk a fine line between obligations to faith and country.
However, in my opinion, at least one soldier has been unfairly characterized in this discussion. From what I can tell from the four minute video of a group of Christian soldiers in Afghanistan, army chaplain Captain Emmitt Furner gave them sound advice. He reminded them of the army regulation and he reminded them that to witness to and for Jesus was more a walk than a talk. It is what we as Christians do that is important. He said: “You share the word in a smart manner: love, respect, consideration for their culture and their religion. That’s what a Christian does is appreciation for other human beings.” Another soldier in the group spoke of love and respect for the people they meet.
Some observers see Captain Furner’s advice as a sly way to spread the gospel, an element of a 21st century Crusade. In my opinion, this interpretation is incorrect. He gave his fellow soldiers the instruction to be living epistles that can be known and read by all (2 Corinthians 3:2). It is an instruction that we who are not on the front lines in Afghanistan and in Iraq can use.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.
Wajahat Ali | Guardian, UK, May 11, 2009
By choosing Cairo, Egypt as the platform for his long awaited address to the global Muslim community, President Barack Obama predictably leans on a reliable dictatorship suffocating a country that is teetering toward religious and political irrelevance.
Indeed, modern Egypt resembles its ubiquitous tourist attraction, the Sphinx, the symbolic temple guardian adorned with a human head on a prostrate lion.
Similarly, the near-30-year, brutal autocracy of Hosni Mubarak weighs heavily on the immobilised body of an exasperated, stifled and proud populace who’ve wearily observed their country, a former beacon for Arab nationalism, transformed into a loyal watchdog and stooge for anti-democratic, “pro-western” policies.
Perhaps Turkey, which Obama visited last month, served as a more ideal and dynamic location due to its successful marriage of secular democracy and Islam, as evidenced by the election of the AKP party, a moderate, pro-western political party with Islamic leanings.
Or Obama could have chosen Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, which recently held free elections and whose citizens roundly rejected rightwing, deeply conservative Islamic parties in favor of non-sectarianism and moderation.
Obama’s speech in Cairo on June will mark the third time he has addressed the Muslim world, seeking partnership and conciliation with Muslims jaded by George Bush’s unrelentingly belligerent and humiliating “war on terror” policies and his divisive, poisonous rhetoric.
In his first major interview to Al-Arabiya, Obama proclaimed: “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.”
Yet, Obama’s choice of Egypt is an implicit endorsement and validation of Mubarak’s dictatorship, and it reiterates the oft-spoken but albeit true cliché in the Muslim world that US merely covets selfish policy interests instead of democratization, autonomy and self determination by and for the Arab and Muslim people.
During a visit to Egypt last week, Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense, affirmed that America’s $2bn in aid to Egypt will continue, thus assuring Egypt’s perennial spot as one of US’s closest allies and recipients of monetary benevolence.
This charity flows annually despite the Egyptian government’s brutal crackdown on political opposition, the free press, dissidents and even critical bloggers whose punishment runs the ignominious gamut from harassment and arrests to torture and “mysterious disappearances”. For example, a Christian blogger, Hani Nazeer Aziz, turned himself in after the government’s security apparatus arrested two of his brothers and used them as hostages, forcing his surrender.
Mubarak’s Egypt also shares a lucrative outsourcing arrangement with the US. Instead of telecommunication and tech support services, Egypt, along with Syria, specializes in torture, so US can conveniently bypass laws, due process and international human rights. Mamdouh Habib, who was eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay, was outsourced by the US to Egypt, where he said he was “hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten“, according to the Washington Post.
Partaking in what is now a routine and convenient pastime for dictators of Muslim countries, Mubarak casually manipulates the constitution like Play-Doh. His government recently amended the document to outlaw opposing “religious parties” like the Muslim Brotherhood – an influential, extremely conservative Islamic political party that won 20% of parliamentary seats in 2005 elections – and neuter judicial supervision over future sham elections, thus ensuring the Mubarak dictatorship dynasty is passed on to his son, Gamal.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan follow this brazen display of forceful attempts to stifle democracy. All of them are long-term US allies whose respective leaders have shared cozy, mutually beneficial relationships. Sadly, the US seems more committed to supporting reliable despots who toe the line than to dealing with democratic parties representative of the people’s desires and values.
If Obama is sincere in treating Muslims as partners and engaging them with mutual respect, his very pretty words must inspire legitimate policy reform. First, he must use this opportunity to empathize with the people’s concerns by denouncing the heinous crimes and oppressive, intolerant conduct of client autocrats, such as Mubarak and the Saudi royal family – just to name a couple.
Second, he must implement a long-term policy initiative that nurtures the emergence of vibrant democratic parties representing the people’s voice throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt, which has been paralyzed by a faltering national economy and decades of unrelenting dictatorships.
Although Obama’s shameful silence on Israel’s massacre in Gaza and his increasingly unsuccessful and casualty-inducing drone attacks in Pakistan have left many Muslims frustrated, his words of conciliation, dignity and respect continue to inspire optimistic Egyptians and Muslims abroad, whose only currency now is hope for an new era of changed, enlightened US relations with the Middle East that does not depend on dictatorships and prostration.
Wajahat Ali is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/
By Andy Goodman | Truthdig, April 10, 2009
As President Barack Obama made his public appearance with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Monday as part of his first trip to a Muslim country, U.S. federal agents were preparing to arrest Youssef Megahed in Tampa, Fla. Just three days earlier, on Friday, a jury in a U.S. federal district court had acquitted him of charges of illegally transporting explosives and possession of an explosive device.
Obama promised, when meeting with Gul, to “shape a set of strategies that can bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the West that can make us more prosperous and more secure.”
Megahed, acquitted by a jury of his peers, thought he was secure, back with his family. He was enrolled in his final course needed to earn a degree at the University of South Florida. Then the nightmare he had just escaped returned. His father told me: “Yesterday around noon, I took my son to buy something from Wal-Mart … when we received a call from our lawyer that we must meet him immediately. … When we got to the parking lot, we found ourselves surrounded by more than seven people. They dress in normal clothes without any badges, without any IDs, surrounded us and give me a paper.
“And they told me, ‘Sign this.’ ‘Sign this for what?’ I ask him. They told me, ‘We are going to take your son … to deport him.’ ”
Megahed is being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a deportation proceeding. The charges are the same ones on which he was completely acquitted. In August 2007, Megahed and a fellow USF student took a road trip to see the Carolinas. When pulled over for speeding, police found something in the trunk that they described as explosives. Megahed’s co-defendant, Ahmed Mohamed, said they were homemade fireworks.
Prosecutors pointed to an online video by Mohamed, said to show how to convert a toy into an explosives detonator. Facing 30 years behind bars, Mohamed took a plea agreement and is now serving 15 years. Megahed pleaded not guilty, and the federal jury in his trial agreed with his defense: He was an unwitting passenger and completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
That’s where ICE comes in. Despite being cleared of the charges in the federal criminal case, it turns out that people can still be arrested and deported based on the same charges. The U.S. Constitution protects people from “double jeopardy,” being charged twice with the same offense. But in the murky world of immigrant detention, it turns out that double jeopardy is perfectly legal.
Ahmed Bedier, the president of the Tampa Human Rights Council and co-host of “True Talk,” a global-affairs show on Tampa community radio station WMNF focusing on Muslims and Muslim Americans, criticizes the pervasive and persistent attacks on the U.S. Muslim community by the federal government, singling out the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or JTTFs. The JTTFs, Bedier says, “include not only federal FBI agents, but also postal inspectors, IRS agents, deputized local police officers and sheriff’s deputies, any type of law enforcement,” and when one agency fails to take down an individual, another agency steps in. “It’s like an octopus,” he says.
When the not guilty verdict was read in court last Friday, Megahed’s father, Samir, walked over to the prosecutors. Bedier recalled: “It startled many people. He walked over to the prosecution, the people that have been after his son for a couple of years now, and shook their hands, extended his hand, and he shook hands with the prosecution team and the FBI themselves and then also shook hands with the judge. The judge shook hands with Youssef and wished him ‘good luck in your future’ … the case was over.”
Obama said in Turkey, “[W]e do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
Until Monday, Samir Megahed praised the justice system of the United States. He told me, “I feel happiness, and I’m very proud, because the system works.” At a press conference after his son’s ICE arrest, he said: “America is the country of freedom. I think there is no freedom here. For Muslims there is no freedom.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.
© 2009 Amy Goodman
WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (IPS) – Speaking before a record crowd estimated at between two and three million people at his inauguration here Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama promised a foreign policy of “humility and restraint” and “greater cooperation and understanding between nations”.
In his first address as president, Obama also said he will take “bold and swift” action to address the deepening economic crisis designed to roll back the excesses of the market and “lay a new foundation for growth,” and to ensure that, in dealing with terrorist threats, he will seek to protect the rule of law and human rights.
“As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he asserted in an implicit rejection of the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, that received the strongest applause of a 15-minute address delivered shortly after he was sworn into office by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on the balcony of the U.S. Capitol.
“Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generation. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Obama’s swearing-in, which took place at noon in bright sunshine but frigid temperatures, was preceded by 90 minutes of pomp, music and circumstance, as the nation’s governors, congressmen, senators, past presidents and vice presidents all filed in before Bush himself was announced – to scattered booing and then an embarrassing silence, followed by Obama, who drew waves of cheering.
But most impressive was the immense crowd that gathered for the occasion. It stretched from the base of the Capitol Building down the stately National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial some three kms away. The previous record for an inauguration was 1.5 million in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his first full term.
The celebration was clouded shortly later Tuesday afternoon as news spread that Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was diagnosed with brain tumor last year, reportedly suffered a seizure during a lunch reception held for Obama in the Capitol by the Congressional leadership after the swearing-in.
Obama’s speech, delivered in the same confident oratorical style that has become his trademark since he first emerged into the national spotlight at his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, was both grim and determined, noting that Washington is not only “at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” but also that the U.S. economy is “badly weakened”.
“Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights,” he said, adding that the challenges faced by the country are “serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.”
On the economy, Obama indicated he intended to take strong action on the nation’s transportation and communications infrastructure, health care, and alternative energy sources, notably solar, wind, and biofuels, among other areas. In another swipe at Bush, he promised to “restore science to its rightful place”.
“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions – who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” he said. “Their memories are short.”
“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…”
“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill,” he added. “Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.”
Surprisingly, Obama devoted more attention to foreign affairs in a series of implicit rebukes to the unilateralist and militarist tendencies of the Bush administration.
After pledging to uphold the rule of law and human rights while maintaining national security, he pledged to “all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” he went on. “They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, not does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
“We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort – even greater cooperation and understanding between nations,” he went on, adding, “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
“With old friends and former foes, we will tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the spectre of a warming planet,” he said. At the same time, he added, “We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
Obama stressed that the U.S.’s own “patchwork heritage” was a “strength, not a weakness” and that its own long struggle to eliminate slavery and segregation gave it an optimism “that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he declared. Obama’s advisers have said he plans to deliver a major address in the capital of a major Islamic nation within the first 100 days of his term.
“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds,” he went on. “And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside out borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”
Obama, the nation’s first president of African descent, alluded only once to his own experience – or, more precisely, his Kenyan father’s – when he noted that core U.S. values of “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism” explained “why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
In the Inaugural’s benediction, civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery also alluded to race when he asked God to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”
Years of peddled fear and demonisation have left vulnerable minorities more isolated and the world fixated by a myth
Pick up any newspaper today in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, switch on the TV or tune in to any radio station, and you’re very likely to get the impression that “our societies” – if not western civilisation in its entirety – face an imminent Islamic threat, on a par with the old dangers of fascism. Since the terrorist bombings of New York, Madrid and London, the “fundamentalist peril” has become part of the air we breathe. It has become a rhetorical crutch for everyone from rightwing bigots to opportunistic politicians and repenting “former extremists”, each with their own agenda.
Today we live amid an explosion of discourse and imagery around Islam and Muslims. Sparked by al-Qaida’s lunatic atrocities, it has since fed on the politics of fear and suspicion. The victims have included objectivity, balance, and the ability to judge issues calmly and rationally. Flawed material is endlessly reproduced and recycled, so it is little wonder that the public’s understanding of Islam and the complex political problems of the Muslim world are limited at best.
Years of peddled fear and demonisation have had severe consequences: a widening of ignorance and bigotry, deepening mistrust between individuals and communities, and the resurrection of the pernicious language of racism and fanaticism – as journalist Peter Oborne illustrated in his Channel 4 Dispatches documentary earlier this week.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that Islam is now the religion closest to Europe and remotest from it. Islam is no longer an alien, distant religion. It is now woven into the very fabric of European society. Muslims are the largest of the continent’s minorities. Yet their physical proximity does not appear to have made them more familiar or better understood. If anything, to most European eyes they seem stranger, more distant, more ambiguous than ever.
The much hyped Islamic threat is one of the greatest lies of our time. The “Muslim world” – though no such bloc really exists – is politically fragmented and economically impoverished. It is reeling under the weight of crises and a long colonial legacy. Militarily, it is of scant significance. It is laughable that we should be discussing the Islamic threat when in the past seven years alone two Muslim countries have come under direct military occupation, ending hopes that the world had firmly closed this chapter of history decades ago.
I suspect many military experts must struggle to keep a straight face every time the subject of the “Islamic threat” is broached. They know that strategic threats are not founded on mere anxieties, imagination and illusions, but on concrete military and political facts. This is not to play down the seriousness of the dangers presented by al-Qaida and other violent groups. But these constitute a security problem to be dealt with through the intelligence and security services. Whatever its braggadocio, al-Qaida does not amount to a strategic military threat, let alone a menace to “western civilisation”.
The security risks posed by al-Qaida, moreover, face Muslims and non-Muslims alike. After all, al-Qaida has perpetrated more atrocities in Muslim countries than western capitals. Attacks in Casablanca, Bali, Riyadh, Algiers, Tunisia, Istanbul and Iraq have outnumbered those in New York, Madrid and London.
In the fog of the so-called war on terror, al-Qaida, terrorism, extremism and Islamism – the list of -isms goes on – have been employed as potent weapons in a range of battles. They have been deployed to demonise vulnerable minorities – their community groups and their leaders, mosques and faith schools. They have been adopted to eat away at civil liberties. And they have been exploited to target mainstream Islamist political parties. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party; the Muslim Brotherhood – the largest opposition in the Egyptian parliament; and Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice party in Malaysia, are among the movements cast in one terrifying category labelled “Islamism”, alongside al-Qaida. The huge differences are wilfully ignored to justify this strategy of unrelenting confrontation. The consequences have been devastating for social stability and community coexistence, as well as for relations between the “Muslim world” and the “west” – something which, ironically, has been recognised by President Bush recently.
Political expediency and scaremongering has seen the propagation of the idea of a grave Islamist threat to the status of orthodoxy. But however easy it might be to surrender to this fiction, it remains just that: a myth fabricated by a few, exploited by a few, and consumed by many. No matter how widely circulated, or endlessly regurgitated, a myth remains a myth.
· Soumaya Ghannoushi will join John Esposito, Alastair Crooke, Martin Bright and Robert Leiken to debate “The Islamic threat: myth or reality?” at IslamExpo in London tomorrow. The expo runs from today until Monday at Olympia in Kensington