Thursday, June 11, 2009

OBAMA, OSAMA, ISLAM AND THE WORLD

In his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, President Barack Hussein Obama had spoken of seeking "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect" with the Muslim world. Nearly five months later, he significantly chose the "timeless city" of Cairo to tell Muslims across the globe that America and Islam were not exclusive and did not need to be in competition. Quoting from the Holy Quran, he also sensitively sought to drive home the point that America's fight against "violent extremism" was not a war against Islam, or a manifestation of a clash of civilisations, and that the US and the Muslim world had to confront this challenge jointly. For perhaps the first time ever, Muslims across the world listened to an American President with open minds and many even welcomed his words.

Thanks to his multi-cultural and multi-racial background, Obama has taken a road no white US President could have even considered. Jack Shaheen sees elements of King and Gandhi in Obama, and believes he is a leader "who has respect for all faiths; he has the vision to see the commonality among all faiths; and is a leader who respects their differences". That is why, when Obama says that America is not and will never be "at war with Islam", his words don't ring hollow and do not sound like that of an average politician trying to make a clever political statement. That is why, even though on ground America's policy on terror remains undiluted and its "war of necessity" in Afghanistan is being prosecuted with renewed focus and vigour, Obama's carefully chosen words are designed to make them more palatable to Muslims and not arouse the kind of hostility against the US that they had till now.

As far as Af-Pak is concerned, Obama's words and actions are also likely to make it that much more difficult for Osama bin Laden to justify and find recruits for his brand of war as a holy jihad against the great Satan America. It was not surprising, therefore, that a few days before Obama spoke in Cairo, an alarmed Osama bin Laden attempted to undermine his efforts to isolate the Al Qaida and the Taliban and project America's war against them in Afghanistan and Pakistan as no more than one against violent extremism that had nothing to do with Islam. In a taped message broadcast by Al Jazeera, Osama tried to whip up emotions against Obama saying: "Obama and his administration have sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America. The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat Valley...Elderly people, children and women fled their homes and lived in tents as refugees after they have lived in dignity in their homes. Let the American people be ready to reap what the White House leaders have sown...".

A couple of years back, Imran Khan, Pakistan's westernised playboy cricketer with a Talibani mindset had blasted President Musharraf for joining America's "war on terror" because that had led to "Muslims killing Muslims" as against Muslims killing non-Muslims earlier. That statement had echoed the then popular, black and white sentiment in Pakistan that the US was at war with Islam and had to defeated, not befriended. That is why Musharraf was so unpopular. That was also one reason why Pakistan was simultaneously fighting against and with the Taliban, in the hope that eventually the Americans would be forced to cut their losses and pull out, leaving the trophy, Afghanistan, back in the hands of Pakistan.

Obama is attempting to change that perception through this speech and many other gestures and words that add up to portray him as a sensitive, visionary and determined leader who can feel and share the pain of Muslims, but wants them to also know at the same time that he will not rest till the extremists are defeated and Af-Pak ceases to pose a security threat to the US.

That clear determination has most likely prompted Colonel Imam, the retired ISI officer who ran a training program for Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and trained Mullah Omar, to say that the Taliban will never be defeated. Imam also seeks to demolish the "good Taliban" theory of Fareed Zakaria, saying that there are no number two Taliban and that those who break away from mainstream Taliban have no place in society. The Americans, he adds, must negotiate with Mullah Omar who is the only man people listen to in Afghanistan. In short, the face-saving solution that Imam is offering to the Americans is one which will restore the position as it was on 9/11, and leave the Al Qaida intact.

In support of this capitulation strategy, Imam recalls the defeat of the British in Maiwand in 1880 and that of the Soviets in 1989, saying that the Afghans "couldn't care less about loss of property or loss of life...the more you kill, the more supporters will come". The Taliban will not win, he admits, but believes that in the end the Americans will tire. Imam does have a point: Afghans have little property to lose and decades of war has made them impervious to loss of life too. But, he forgets that they too are humans. He may revel in the fact that they can keep counting the dead and not flinch, but must know that there has to and will come a point when they too will tire; and when they do, it will be for a very, very long time.

Obama's words and follow-up actions will aim to de-couple this fight in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan from Islam and take the jihadi fire out of it. If he succeeds in achieving this objective in some measure, the will to fight will evaporate and the tiredness of centuries of fighting and deprivation will take a firm grip. Osama and Imam perhaps recognise this. That is why this response and that is why we must expect some spectacular attacks in the near future as the Al Qaida and Taliban try to grapple with loss of support, low morale and fewer recruitments.

Apart from these predictable responses, Obama's speech has been generally favourably received in Muslim countries, including the Arab world, that has tuned into Obama rather than Osama. It has also drawn its share of criticism from across the world, the sharpest being from some Westerners who don't like the idea of there being something called the "Muslim world", see little good in Islam and believe that there is as much common ground between Islam and Christianity as can be found between a mass murderer and Mother Teresa. Pakistanis are unhappy primarily because he did not mention Kashmir and lost an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. Some Indians are not pleased because not only did he not talk of India, but also because he all but apologised to Muslims for what America had been doing without finding any fault with Islam or them, while others feel that he touched heights of greatness . Then there are those who have found him great in eloquence but lacking in substance. Such reactions indicate the influence that the Obama phenomenon has begun to exercise over the whole world.

One speech, as Obama said himself, is not going to change perceptions and prejudices overnight. He has made a beginning, an honest one, to reconcile mainstream Islam with the rest of the world based on mutual respect. No one is in any doubt about the sincerity behind this vision that has the potential of radically altering societal dynamics not only in the US but across the world based on greater tolerance and acceptance of different view points and religious beliefs, and rejection of religious extremism and violence. No one, at the same time, should also be in any doubt that this is not going to be easy.

What happens in the Hindu Kush mountains and the plains of Pakistan in the next few years will determine whether it is the vision of Obama or the viciousness of Osama that will prevail. A tectonic change that will profoundly impact the course of all mankind is under way.
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Readers may also read:
1. For India if Bush was good, Obama will be better
2. Obama: closet 'Hindu' or secular world leader?
3. Obama and Biden Vs Osama bin Laden: coincidence?