Obama's Offer of Dialogue to the Islamic World

Turning Away from Simplistic Dualism

US President Obama has extended his hand to the Islamic world and offered it a "new partnership in mutual respect". In doing so, he is heralding the dawn of a truly new age and confirming a definitive break with the Bush era, says Loay Mudhoon

Barack Obama being interviewed by the Arab broadcaster Al Arabiya (photo: DW)
More than just a symbolic gesture: Muslims around the world welcomed President Obama's promise to work towards better relations with the Muslim world

​​The Islamic world has waited a long time to hear these words: "There is no reason why we cannot rebuild the same respect and the same partnership with the Islamic world that America had 20 or 30 years ago." These words were spoken by US President Obama to the Dubai-based Arab broadcaster Al Arabiya in his first full TV interview with the station since his inauguration.

At the same time, Obama emphasised that he wants to convey to Americans that the Islamic world consists of human beings with the same dream of a better life for themselves and their children as they have. This he experienced as a child in Indonesia, where he spent part of his childhood.

Rejecting a simplistic view of the world

In itself, Obama's interview with Al Arabiya, the second most important satellite broadcaster in the Arab world after Al-Jazeera, was a highly symbolic event. But this "media charm offensive" marks not only a new political style, but also a definitive break with the simplistic dualism and friend–enemy rhetoric of the Bush era.

The truth of the matter is that nearly every decision made by the Bush administration was defended with the paradigm of the "global war against terrorism". This was especially true when its actions – such as the "Guantánamo system" – violated international law.

By redefining this indifferent "war against terror", Obama and his team are showing their readiness to correct this monumental mistake.

This development is of central importance to relations between the West and the Islamic world, because the complexity of the political realities and alliances in the Middle East clearly contradicts the demagogic simplification embodied by the rallying cry that is the "global war against terrorism".

The failure that was the Iraq War

It is now evident that the one-dimensional perspective of the Bush administration has provided fertile ground for the development of Islamist terrorism into a global threat – not to mention the all too familiar East-West irritations and the nefarious rituals of mutual demonization.

Most notably the Iraq War, which is generally known to have been the cornerstone of neoconservative plans for a "revolutionary democratisation" of the Near and Middle East, has turned out to be a colossal failure. It has seriously damaged the authority and moral credibility of the only remaining world superpower.

The war was wrong not least because it weakened moderate forces in Islamic countries and ultimately strengthened anti-Western forces.

Montage of George Mitchell, the American flag, and a map of the Middle East (photo: AP/DW)
Carrying the hopes of the world: "Honest broker" George Mitchell, the United States' Middle East envoy

​​In contrast to the policy makers in the Bush administration, Obama demonstrates the tactfulness that is so vital to foreign policy and that his predecessors completely lacked, and thus seems to have recognised the extremely potent symbolism and high mobilisation power of the Middle East conflict: the path to peace in the Middle East leads not through Baghdad, but Jerusalem.

The appointment of the experienced "honest broker" George Mitchell as Middle East envoy looks promising in view of the strategic goal of attaining a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

Muslims as partners

Further evidence of his sense of reality and the change in priorities is the new US president's basic willingness to speak with relevant players and "rogue states". "If countries such as Iran are ready to unclench their fists, they can expect our outstretched hand”.

The new US president would like to approach the crises in the "greater Middle East" systematically with an active and credible diplomacy that employs "all instruments of US power". This too is further evidence of a definitive break with the Bush era.

Obama has a real chance to give new impetus to relations with the Islamic world as long as his moral authority, the new realism in the White House, and, not least, his proclaimed commitment to finding a solution to the core conflict in the Middle East persists.

If he is clever enough to take advantage of this opportunity and to win over moderate Muslims as allies, then hard times may come for the representatives of the "axis of resistance" and those who refuse to cooperate in the Islamic crisis region.

Loay Mudhoon

© Qantara 2009

Translated from the German by Nancy Jones

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