Despite disappointment in Obama’s arm’s length approach during the campaign, the vast majority of Arab and Muslim American voters supported him on Election Day. They felt his domestic and foreign policies would be a vast improvement over his predecessor’s. Like other Americans, they were hopeful.
His recent televised interview on the Arabic satellite network, Al Arabiya, infused new life into that hope—hope that had been waning rapidly in the weeks leading up to the inauguration. Obama’s silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict troubled many Arab and Muslim Americans because it eerily resembled Bush’s hands-off approach to the region. And to many, his justification that U.S. foreign policy remained in President Bush’s hands until January 20th did not resonate with his aggressive approach to overhauling the economy on the domestic front.
For now, those concerns have been at least somewhat quelled. Barack Obama chose an Arabic satellite network for his first formal televised interview as President of the United States of America—a clear signal that his approach to the Muslim world would not imitate that of the former president’s. He invoked his Muslim heritage, which was completely off-limits during the U.S. presidential campaign by saying, “my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”
He appointed former senate majority leader George Mitchell (a Lebanese American) as his Middle East envoy and sent him to the region with an unprecedented message: this administration would focus on repairing America’s relations with the Muslim world; this administration would start by listening rather than dictating; this administration would make it clear that Americans are not the enemy.
The significance of this interview and his message cannot be overstated. It goes beyond merely re-infusing hope in the Arab and Muslim American communities. It has the potential to start changing how the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world view the United States. It has the potential to start changing how the international community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, views America’s seemingly unilateral approach to policies in the Middle East.
It also has the potential to shape stability and harmony here on the domestic front. Yes, President Obama’s policies in the Middle East will likely have real consequences here in the United States. Despite some commentators arguing that the President will need to prioritize his efforts at home rather than abroad, it is becoming increasingly clear that the two are deeply inter-related. U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East have ripple effects around the world, and as we’ve seen over the past 8 years, America’s borders are no longer immune to those waves. The current administration’s approach to the Middle East has the potential to ensure our national security by restoring the civil liberties of all Americans and bringing Muslims into the national dialogue on diplomacy and democracy.
Potential is a great thing, but only when it’s fulfilled. Quite frankly, I think we all have reason to remain hopeful.