A recent CNN poll shows that 6 in 10 Americans believe that President-elect Barack Obama will change the country for the better. The CNN poll also shows that majority of Americans think, “it’s likely that Obama will improve race relations, improve economic conditions, bring stability to the financial markets, make the US safer from terrorism, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, reduce global warming, win the war in Afghanistan and remove US troops from Iraq without causing a major upheaval in that country.” In short, the public wants Obama to deliver on his promises.
This presidential election also saw Americans voting in record numbers. The enthusiasm was particularly marked among minority groups and first-time or occasional voters. In unprecedented numbers, American Muslims, like many others, worked tirelessly by knocking on doors, registering new voters and raising money. However, unlike others, the election season was bittersweet for American Muslims. They watched in utter disgust as the word “Muslim” morphed into a smear and a taboo. They were disappointed with Obama’s tepid response to the vilification of American Muslims. Yet they chugged along realizing that standing at the cross roads of history they could not let their personal disappointments transcend the urgency for change.
The exit polls
Polls conducted by MuslimVotersUSA.com and American Muslim Task Force showed 9 in 10 American Muslims voting for Obama. Only African Americans voted at a higher rate for Obama. Additionally, survey results from MuslimVotersUSA.com showed a whopping 25 point increase in favor of Obama. In 2004 only 65 percent had voted for the Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Although 65 percent of voters identified themselves as politically “moderates” (23 percent considered themselves “liberals”), nearly 7 in 10 voted for a Democratic congressman and/or a Senator. The American Muslim community swung to the left in 2008. In states like Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where Obama and the Democrats won by small margins, the American Muslims proved to be one of the key swing voting blocs.
Some concerns about the Obama transition
The MuslimVotersUSA.com poll showed that even in voting for Obama, 6 in 10 American Muslims expressed “reservations” about their choice. The absence of any American Muslim on Obama’s transition team is now causing some angst among members of the community. For a campaign that ran on a message of inclusiveness, this omission does not bode well for the future. Just as worrisome is who is on the transition team.
One name that has drawn sharp criticism is Sonal Shah. Shah is linked to the Indian Hindu militant group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is described by Indian-American groups as openly supporting “the persecution and pogroms against the Christian and Muslim minorities of India.” Sonal Shah was national coordinator for VHP-America helping to coordinate relief for the victims of 2001 Gujarat earthquake. Although Shah has issued a statement stating that she does not “subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups,” she has not explicitly condemned VHP with whom, according to newspaper accounts, she was involved in a leadership capacity. Given the enormous expectations that Obama will lead a politics of a different kind, these early signs naturally elicit skepticism.
Perhaps no issue is more emotionally tugging to the American Muslim community than the plight of the Palestinians. The appointment of Congressman Rahm Emmanuel to become the new White House Chief of Staff renewed cynicism that the more things change, the more they remain the same in Washington. Emmanuel, who has dual Israeli and American citizenship, was in favor of the Iraq War and had famously chastised the Bush Administration for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. Emmanuel is the son of a member of Irgun, a militant Zionist organization that during 1931-48 was responsible for many acts of terrorism against the British and Palestinians. Emmanuel found himself in hot water when his father told an Israeli newspaper, “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.” Rahm Emmanuel later apologized for his father’s comments.
Foreign policy challenges
On domestic issues like the economy, jobs, health care and civil liberties, the aspirations of the American Muslim community are consistent with the majority that voted for Obama. On foreign policy, there are similarities and differences. American Muslims want US troops to withdraw from Iraq, but do not favor massive redeployment in Afghanistan. A military surge in Afghanistan is unlikely to have the same impact it had in Iraq, partly because the politics and terrain of Afghanistan are different from Iraq. Moreover, an increase in the US military presence will lead to more skirmishes across the border in Pakistan, further exasperating an already volatile situation there. Redeploying more troops to Afghanistan will undercut one of Obama’s central economic arguments that the monthly $10 billion expenditure in Iraq is better spent rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
Extending a helping hand is likely to have a positive impact on America’s image. However, when Obama speaks about creating mobile development teams that, “that bring together personnel from the military, the Pentagon, the State Department and USAID, fully integrating US government efforts in counter-terror, state-building, and post-conflict operations,” some may perceive this as an indirect way of heavy-handed meddling. The idea, on face value, may be perceived as well-intentioned and good, but if the execution begins to resemble “nation-building” we may be back to square one, with American presence in the Muslim world once again fueling resentments. Much of what happens next will depend to execution, which will require broad-based and inclusive coalitions with American groups who have a stake in the stability of the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East.
On the most intractable foreign policy challenge, a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama promises engagement in getting both sides to reach an agreement. Judging by his overtures to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), however, Obama may not be much different from Bush. His silence on the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza may have been good campaign politics, but will appear less statesmanlike once he is sworn into office. “Judging from the Arab media outlets,” explains Souheila Al-Jadda, a Peabody award wining journalist and associate producer of Mosaic, “Arabs in the Middle East don’t expect to see much change in policy towards the Middle East, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The path to rebuilding America’s image and prestige in the Muslim world lies in assuring Muslims that Obama will live up to the standard he has outlined, “recognizing the inherent equality, dignity, and worth of all people,” including those of the Palestinians who continue to suffer under the longest running occupation in the world. Even before Bush 43 took office, US foreign policy has generally been myopic. It became dangerously unilateralist in the past eight years. Continuing support for dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world and ignoring the inherent dignity of the people in that region will neither make America safe nor respected.
American Muslims would like to see Obama develop a more coherent and holistic policy. One such initiative could be to create a détente in the Middle East by bringing all parties to the table in an effort to reach a grand bargain that will assure all people in the region a secure, prosperous and dignified life. Spreading democracy needs to be viewed as a means to this goal leaving open the real possibility that democracy in the Muslim world is unlikely to resemble that in Europe or America. A more practical goal should be the development of civic society in the Middle East, with institutions that the champion the rights of people without fear of government recriminations.
The long road ahead
It is premature to rush to any judgment about the trajectory of an Obama administration. In implementing his vision of a more inclusive, progressive and grassroots politics, if Obama were to rely on old Clinton hands like Emmanuel then American Muslims need not react in an adverse manner. Emmanuel may practice a brand of politics that is different from the aspirations of the American Muslim community, but he is also highly qualified for the position. If Emmanuel is executing Obama’s vision, then the fact that his politics differs from the aspiration of the American Muslim community, with respect to its Middle East agenda, is less of a problem. However, if the Obama administration, influenced by the ideology of the Emmanuels and Shahs veers off the road then many of those who gave Obama the mandate of change will once again come back empty handed from a political process that has in general been disappointing to them. Can Obama become a successful President by abandoning the very values he campaigned on?
Obama’s election is not the end of a road; it is only the beginning of a struggle for change. The future will require vigilance and organization. Without public oversight, the new Democratic majority now sweeping into Washington will become just as arrogant, just as corrupt and just as out of touch as the Republicans they have removed from office. Despite setbacks, the American Muslim community should use their new found enthusiasm to discover newer and better ways to engage in the American political process.
Like other minority groups, American Muslims will find the road hard. Many will slam the door on their faces. Many will cut-off the road they are treading on. The forces of divisiveness and discord will continue their drum beat of fear mongering. And yet, if they keep extending out, they will also find new partners, new allies and new friends. Only by sustained engagement can American Muslims help steer American politics away from the culture wars, which contributed to the demonization of Islam and Muslims during the election season of 2008.
Parvez Ahmed is a commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience. He is associate professor at the University of North Florida.