During the eight year presidency of George W. Bush – and particularly after September 11, 2001 – a new emphasis was made on selling America to the Muslim world. Bush first enlisted advertising executive Charlotte Beers before settling on his trusted friend and advistor Karen Hughes. Both made attempts to emphasize the positive aspects of American society through traditional media – while glossing over the foreign policy elephants in the room. New magazines and television stations were created to sell pop culture and good news stories featuring American Muslims. Though sincere in its limited approach, there was little to show for their efforts by the end of Bush’s second term.
Now, barely one week into his new presidency, Barack Hussein Obama has rendered these positions obsolete. Obama chose, as his first formal interview, the Saudi-backed Al Arabiya network – a calculated middle ground between the maverick Al Jazeera network and the (widely ignored) US-backed Al-Hurra channel. Though not revealing substantive policy differences with his predecessor, he hinted a number of changes that could lay the foundation for more pragmatic, if not dramatic, initiatives in the near future.
“What I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith… people all have certain common hopes and common dreams,” Obama said. “And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives.” Repeatedly, he pledged to listen to the Muslim world instead of dictate. He acknowledged that the US was not perfect and made mistakes. And the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, all but ignored by the Bush administration, is given its due as a basis for negotiations.
Unlike the lauded communication of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (which conveyed only bluster internationally) and the wonkish language of Bill Clinton in the 1990s (which often conveyed insincerity), Obama has managed to build his nuanced approach on a public persona bereft of stereotypes, whether they are racial, political, or religious. Skills learned on the campaign trail to manage his identity are shifting up a gear. He is careful not to overplay his hand. Conspiracy theories common in the Muslim world are crumbling. Even Al Qaeda seems somewhat spooked.
During his campaign, Obama was almost hyper-sensitive about the impression that he might be Muslim, to the point where he was slow to respond to outright Islamophobia, instead leaving the task for supporters such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell. No longer. “I have Muslim members of my family,” he continued in the interview. “I have lived in Muslim countries.” More importantly, he went on to distinguish “between organizations like al Qaeda… and people who may disagree with my administration… We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful,” a clean break from the “with us or against us” theme since 9/11. The impact of words like this on the Muslim world cannot be underestimated. It is near astonishing.
And there’s more. Since his election, Obama has promised to make a major address to the Muslim world from a Muslim capital (though he hasn’t said where yet, Jakarta is a safe bet because he speaks “passable Bahasa“). Rather than appoint a by-the-numbers person to lead negotiations in the Middle East, Obama chose former US Senator (and Arab-American) George Mitchell, who earned his keep brokering peace in Northern Ireland and making remarkably fair assessments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With these attributes and decisions, Obama’s potential for constructive influence in the Muslim world is enormous. But all is not rosy. His authorisation of a missile strike in Pakistan that killed up to 22 people continues a policy started by his predecessor that has angered both the government and civilians in that country (though, as a campaign promise, the strikes should not have come as a surprise). In this, he risks bringing up memories of insincerity from presidents past – pleasant (if not nuanced) words, followed by unexpected military action. Given the events in Gaza and the global economic situation – which continues to tie America and the Arab world through oil – a further loss of goodwill could reopen old wounds and stifle progress.
But as it stands thus far, the military action in Pakistan is an outlier. Obama’s faith in the impact of public relations on the political sphere, something that has been underestimated or ridiculed in the past, will be his big test before tough decisions are made in the Muslim world. And by making tough decisions of his own in his first week as an opening gesture – beginning the process of closing Guantanamo and drawing down troops from Iraq – the newly inaugurated PR president might actually get what he wants.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.