Barack Obama’s campaign victory was epic-making in America and across the Muslim world. On November 4, as soon as the election was called for Barack Obama, I began to receive congratulatory emails from friends in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Europe. Some had stayed up through the night to hear the final results. Of course, I wasn’t surprised at the global interest and support, which had been evident on recent visits to Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Wherever I spoke, regardless of the topic, someone in the audience would ask me a question about Obama and his prospects. Privately, it was the topic of conversation. So what will all this mean?
In the Muslim world, as in Europe and much of the world, Obama is welcomed as an internationalist president. His Kenyan father, early schooling in Indonesia, race and name symbolize for many a unique internationalist presidential profile, one that contrasts sharply with his predecessor. Indeed, he is seen as the antithesis of George W. Bush—internationally informed, experienced, aware and sensitive, a measured and articulate statesman—not, as Bush is often regarded, as a swaggering Texas cowboy.
Obama’s foreign policy will be expected to be all the things that many in the Muslim world saw as lacking in the Bush administration, which was viewed as neo-colonial, unilateral, arrogant, militant and interventionist. Therefore, an Obama administration will be expected to be multilateral, favor diplomacy first over military threats and intervention, and avoid what many believe was a neo-colonialist American foreign policy whose verbal commitment to democracy promotion and human rights was hypocritical. Obama’s administration cannot, like Bush’s, fail to walk the way it talks.
Despite its democratic rhetoric, the Bush administration continued to look the other way in its relations with authoritarian Muslim allies. It refused to accept the election of HAMAS. America condemned Hizbollah, but sat on the sidelines as Israel carpet-bombed Lebanon, destroying much of its infrastructure in a war whose victims were overwhelmingly Lebanon’s civilian population. Many Muslims today expect Obama to live up to the principles of self-determination, justice and human rights that they associate with America and break with the Bush administration’s (and for that matter, previous administrations’) double standard in not promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
Given the legacy of past American policies that engaged in what Ambassador Richard Haas, a senior State Department official in George W. Bush’s first term, called “Democratic Exceptionalism”—its equation of America’s national interest in security, stability and access to oil with uncritical support for authoritarian regimes and Israel—Obama will face a formidable challenge of sharply rising expectations. It will be further complicated by the fact that some Muslim rulers, in contrast to their populations, preferred McCain, believing that he would continue the Bush policy (and indeed that of Bush’s predecessors) of supporting their regimes in exchange for their cooperation and what were regarded as America’s national interests.
Both America/Europe and Muslim societies need to pursue a joint effort in marginalizing the extremist fringe and building bridges between members of the mainstream. Data from the Gallup World Poll (see Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by Dalia Mogahed and myself), the most comprehensive and systematic poll of the Muslim world—representing the voices of 90% of the world’s Muslims in more that 35 countries stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia—provides critical insights into the components for a new direction in American foreign policy and relations with the Muslim world. Majorities of Muslims, like Westerners, are deeply concerned about religious extremism and terrorism, not surprising since the majority of attacks and victims have been in the Muslim world.
For majorities of Muslims who admire the West’s freedoms, technologies, and rule of law, the major issues are respect for Islam and Muslims and Western, especially American, foreign policies. Many will be looking for an American administration that emphasizes diplomacy and dialogue. They will expect co-existence and constructive engagement rather than interference, intervention or dominance in America’s relations with the Muslim world; the promotion of democratization as self-determination; economic and educational assistance rather than the transfer of substantial military arms and equipment to authoritative regimes; and a more balanced policy in its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
While agreement on a withdrawal policy for Iraq will not be easy, devising a new policy to address deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan that does not require major multi-year American military involvement will prove difficult. However, the most intractable issue will continue to be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The obstacles seem insurmountable: the failed leadership in Israel and Palestine, prospects of a new Netanyahu-led government facing off with HAMAS, and formidable American domestic pressure from the Israel lobby and Zionist Christian Right leaders. There seems little reason to believe that an Obama administration or the new Congress will alter a long-established tradition of American presidents (Democrat or Republican) and Congresses to equate the existence, safety and security of Israel but be gun-shy in providing comparable support for Palestinian Muslims and Christians. A review of Obama’s campaign advisers on foreign policy and community affairs as well as the list of those rumored to be appointed in his new administration do not bring an initial optimism for significant change.
The policies and legacy of the Bush administration have left Barack Obama and his new administration with many formidable political and economic challenges, some seemingly intractable. However, in relations with the Muslim world and in our joint fight against global terrorism, Obama does have a singular opportunity to signal a new era and send a new message of hope and constructive engagement across the Muslim world.
John L. Esposito is University Professor, Professor of Religion and International Affairs, Professor of Islamic Studies and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.