Today's date:
Winter 2009

Obama and the Palestinians

Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has been named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s top 100 intellectuals. His most recent book is In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons From the Life of Muhammad. Ramadan teaches at Oxford University.

Oxford, England—The eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency have accustomed us to so many errors, lies, willful distortions and political manipulation that a page is about to be turned in the history of the United States.

Since September, 2001, the Bush regime has been obsessed by the “global war on terror” and the conflict with the “Axis of Evil.” But over time, Americans have awakened to the emptiness of these bellicose and arrogant slogans.

Obama’s election was an event to be welcomed for several reasons; yet we must not be lulled into complacency by naive estimates of what lies ahead.

Obama’s roots, his past and his multiple cultural identities stand in stark contrast to the profiles of George W. Bush or John McCain. His understanding of, and relations with, the countries of the world—particularly of the global South—and with American society itself point to a different outcome. Taken together, his life and experience foster hope for a new understanding of domestic and international issues possible.

On the most fundamental level, (former Secretary of State) Colin Powell has laid out the terms of reference: Obama is not a Muslim; he is black and Christian. But, in the final analysis, what if he were a Muslim? What is wrong with being “African-American” or “Muslim” in today’s America?

While it now appears that the US can live with the election of a black American, indications are that a new, virulent anti-Muslim racism has arisen in the wake of the events of September, 2001.

Given such fears, and the hardening of religious and ethnic divisions, Barack Obama’s past and origins should make it possible for him to emerge as “everybody’s president.” In rejecting manufactured divisions, cultural biases and the “religionization” of social issues, Obama could well become the symbol of a new US simply by wielding his stature as president to promote domestic policies that favor justice and equality, empowering citizens of all origins.

The first black president’s greatest achievement would be to cause people to forget his color. But success is far from assured.

On the international level, Barack Obama should be able to lay to rest the deafness of the outgoing administration, which spared no effort to persuade Americans that they were the victims of “aggressors” who “hated” their civilization and their values.

Above and beyond the condemnation of terrorist acts, which is virtually unanimous and should be unconditional, the criticisms and grievances of the entire world must now be heard. The policies of the Bush administration have produced a worldwide rejection of the US.

The new president must begin with symbolic actions to demonstrate that the life of an Afghan, an Iraqi or a Muslim is worth no less than that of an American. The time has come to put an end to the language of bullying and intimidation and to close the dungeons of shame at Guantanamo and other similar prisons around the world.

As president, Obama can no longer justify, in the name of American national security, the deaths of the innocent, legalized torture, extraordinary rendition and other discriminatory measures up to and including the granting of American visas. If Obama’s diversity of origins gives cause for hope, it would only be insofar as these origins would permit him to open doors instead of close them.

The campaign has made it clear that we must entertain no illusions. Change may be significant in certain areas; in others, it is bound to be limited. The Palestine-Israel conflict is central to world peace. Yet Obama has taken such an outspoken pro-Israel stance (before an American pro-Israel lobby) that significant change on this issue would be extremely unlikely. Nor should much be expected in dealing with the international economic crisis.

Both issues (unconditional support for Israel and economic neoliberalism) seem to constitute untouchable dogmas. No American political figure dares call them into question. But the future of the entire world hinges on the global-local conflict in the Middle East and on the international economic order.

We must not succumb to irrational hope. There can be little doubt that some positive change could be expected under an Obama presidency. Any such change should be welcomed; at the same time, our critical vigilance must not be relaxed, especially with regard to the sacrosanct dogmas of a political and economic establishment that cannot bring itself to acknowledge the dignity of the Palestinian people, or the devastation wrought by an economic order that has plunged so many across the planet into poverty and insecurity.