Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Obama wins praise from many Muslims

CAIRO – A “turning point,” a “fresh breeze” — even a “light in the darkness.” Arabs and Muslims have been charmed by President Barack Obama’s first venture into the Islamic world.

Obama’s visit to Turkey this week was full of gestures calculated at showing he is a friend to Muslims, like his headliner sound bite that the U.S will never be “at war with Islam” and his mention of the Muslims in his family. Even throwaway lines like a comment that he had to wrap up a town-hall meeting with Turkish students “before the call to prayer” showed he was no stranger to Muslims’ way of life.

To many, the town-hall format for a meeting with students in Istanbul on Tuesday sent a significant message. The sight of a U.S. president being questioned by Muslims was dramatically different from the perception many had of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush was seen by many Arabs and Muslims as domineering and dictating U.S. policy on the Islamic world.

“Obama is much better than Bush,” Abed Taqoush, a 74-year-old flower shop owner in the Lebanese capital of Beirut said Wednesday. “Bush was a war criminal. Obama seems to be a man of peace.”

“I believe him,” he said of Obama — a phrase echoed by many Wednesday.

But Obama’s charm also heightened expectations for a change in U.S. policy in the Middle East, and many remain deeply skeptical that will happen. Nearly everyone across the region interviewed by The Associated Press said they wanted to see Washington push for the creation of a Palestinian state to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict.

It was a reminder that while the “clash of civilizations” may exacerbate tensions, the heart of Arab and Muslim anger at the West is over policies, particularly the 2003 invasion of Iraq and what is seen as U.S. favoritism toward Israel.

Many focused on Obama’s promise that the U.S. would work for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But there is also widespread concern Obama will not press the hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who so far has not expressed his support for a two-state solution.

“I will believe him only when I see his troops leave Iraq and when I see him telling the Israelis that it’s time for you to leave the Palestinian territories,” said Tariq Hussein, 25, who was selling shoes and watching TV at his shop in Ramallah. “Other than that it’s all a political maneuver.”

Arabs and Muslims have also been encouraged by Obama’s plans for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, plus his calls for dialogue with top Mideast rivals Syria and Iran.

Despite worries over policy, the Turkey trip did suggest that style and tone can at least open doors.

In mainly Muslim Malaysia, Sheema Abdul-Aziz said Obama seemed to be making a “sincere effort.”

“He understands the issues better, he has more familiarity with Islamic culture and society.” said Abdul-Aziz, a 31-year-old environmental conservationist.

Added Ikana Mardiastuti, who works at a research institute in Jakarta, Indonesia, and is the mother of a young boy: “For the Islamic world, these words are like a fresh breeze. I believe him.”

Libya’s leader Moammer Gadhafi had a sort of backdoor praise. He described Obama as “light in the imperialist darkness,” saying he was “not arrogant like most former American presidents.”

Even religious conservatives came away impressed.

“The Islamic world should avail of this positive opportunity,” said Sheik Nimaa Al-Abadi, a cleric at the influential Shiite seminary in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. “The opening chapter of Obama in the Islamic world might be a real turning point.”

In Saudi Arabia, a cleric who sits on a government committee for rehabilitating militants away from extremist ideology said Obama’s outreach “will make it more difficult to recruit young Muslim men to carry out terrorist acts. They (militants) no longer have the argument to do so.”

“Obama has a charisma that is acceptable in the Muslim world and on top of it he is proving that he translates his words into deeds,” said the sheik, Mohammed al-Nujaimi.

In part, Obama’s warm welcome reflected the almost rabid bitterness toward Bush, who on his final visit to Baghdad was pelted with shoes by an angry journalist. The journalist then became a hero across the Mideast.

Bush had often emphasized outreach to Muslims and Arabs, and he was, after all, the first U.S. president to openly endorse the idea of a Palestinian state.

But nothing dented the image of an arrogant, bellicose United States created by Guantanamo, images of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and the bloodshed that reigned in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion.

Bush was also seen as unquestioningly supportive of Israel. While Washington blamed Iran and militants for turmoil in Lebanon and Gaza, many in the region equally blamed Bush’s stances.

Still, even those calling Obama sincere are skeptical he can resolve the Mideast’s many intractable problems.

“It’s nice to see and hear. But this region is a mess, and there are a lot of hardline adversaries still out there,” said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Middle East is like a long rope, with lots of knots to untie.”

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service