Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hope for a new way forward with the Muslim world

Waleed Aly
January 22, 2009

IT WAS a sentence of astonishing density: "To the Muslim world: we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

This is the only remark in Barack Obama's inaugural speech directed by name to a specific part of the world, other than America. It expresses an urgency in seeking to mend these most damaged of America's international relationships.

And it does so with a rare diplomatic touch: instantly rejecting the approach of the Bush era — "a new way forward" — and conveying a deep understanding of why the global Muslim view of America has soured so terribly in recent years.

That is the genius of Mr Obama's newly articulated formula, "mutual interest and mutual respect".

Scarcely could there be a more succinct summary of everything George Bush's approach was not.

"Respect" especially is an immaculate choice of words.

Gallup polling of 35 Muslim majority countries published last year showed that their most pervasive gripe towards the West was a general feeling of being humiliated and treated as inferior.

What they craved more than anything was for the West to reverse its perceived "disrespect for Islam".

Mr Obama has either studied well or is receiving good advice.
That, of course, does not imply any radical policy shifts beyond the less militant tone.

America's stance on Israel, for instance, seems unlikely to shift significantly: both Mr Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his soon-to-be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, are as pro-Israeli as anyone in Washington.

If any (unlikely) seismic shift awaits, it may be discerned in Mr Obama's message to autocratic regimes: "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Except, at least in the Muslim world, many of those clenched fists belong to US allies.

Is Mr Obama really prepared to apply pressure to them where Mr Bush was not? It would be a bold move, not least because democracy risks bringing anti-American forces to power in the short term.

But should he make it, Mr Obama might just win the Muslim hearts he apparently seeks. And as a "way forward", that's about as "new" as you can get.

Waleed Aly lectures in politics at Monash University. He was in Washington for the inauguration.

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