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9 Nov, 2008

Why Obama will also fail to bring peace to the Middle East

Originally Published: 09 Nov 2008

I am not among those who have clambered aboard the bandwagon named Euphoria following the election of Barack Obama.

A man who could not muster the courage to acknowledge his roots, his heritage and his paternal pedigree, and in fact openly sought to distance himself from it for the sake of political expediency, is to me just another wily politician surrounded by the usual clique of hangers-on.

The man’s middle name is Hussein. I wonder if he knows what the name means, and in which language. He could have dumped the name as a potential political liability, but he didn’t. One likes to think that he maintained it for a reason other than related to a legal issue.

He lived in Indonesia as a child. Both his real father and step-father had Islamic family origins, and his white mother had no problems marrying them. The religion no doubt shaped their character and outlook towards life, which they passed on to their children, either genetically, socially or culturally.

In pursuing the presidency, Mr. Obama faced two huge handicaps: a) being a mixed-race African-American and b) having Islamic family roots.

Of the two, he sought only to convert the first negative into a positive.

His message to the American public was to move beyond the archaic parochialism of skin colour. His handlers pushed racial unity as a sign of a new-found American maturity in a globalised world.

No such luck for Muslims and Islam, however. This side of Mr. Obama was downplayed with the same off-handish disdain and prejudice as the blacks themselves would have faced a mere 20 years ago.

Today, being a Muslim in the deep fundamentalist Christian heartland of the U.S. is the same as being a “nigger” in the erstwhile white supremacist southern states in the 1930s or 40s.

Various offensive attempts were made to attack Mr. Obama’s Islamic roots and question his patriotism. The digging up of Mr. Obama’s friendship with Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. , Senior Pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ, was a case in point.

While he vigorously positioned himself as a committed Christian, patriotic American and proud African-American, never did he say that there was nothing wrong either with being a Muslim-American, or having roots in a religion followed by 1.2 billion people of the world and countries that supply the U.S. with most of its oil.

The reason is not difficult to establish.

A politician is beholden to three groups – his/her financiers, voters and the immediate team of strategists, planners, communicators, speech-writers, etc. Of these groups, it is the latter who “control” the candidate, prepare his script and make sure he sticks to it.

In recent weeks, members of this team have been identified. Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, is a Jewish-American. His chief advisor on Middle East issues is Dennis Ross, a Jewish-American. His chief-of-staff, the first person Mr. Obama is set to appoint, is likely to be Rahm Emanuel, a Jewish-American.

Analyse Mr. Obama’s pre-election June 2008 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or his July 2008 visit to Middle East (all easily googleable) and it becomes quite clear that, like all good politicians, Mr. Obama knew well which side of his bread needed to be buttered.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama visited a number of synagogues, including one of the larger ones in Florida, but he never, ever came even remotely near a mosque.

By contrast, two Muslim women wearing a “hijab” (habit) were removed from the backdrop of the photo-ops at the August 2008 Democratic National convention where Mr. Obama won his party’s nomination.

Jimmy Carter, the former U.S. President who has done more to bring peace to the Middle East thanks to his mediatory role in the Camp David accords, could not even get a speaking slot at the same Democratic Convention because his views on Palestinian suffering and statehood were considered to be offensive to Mr. Obama’s rich Jewish-American backers.

According to one media report, “Convention organizers honored Carter with only a short video clip highlighting his work with Hurricane Katrina victims and a brief walk across the Pepsi Center stage.”

In his victory speech, Mr. Obama thanked his immediately family, his brothers and sisters and remembered his late grandmother, but never once mentioned his mother or father/s.

Instead, one line sounded eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush’s sabre-rattling “war on terror” rhetoric. “To those – to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you.”

As Robert Fisk, probably the best-informed Western correspondent in the Middle East pointed out in an interview with Al Jazeera, the word “justice” was not uttered once in the speech.

So, America may have changed its outlook towards African-Americans, and will reap a huge payback as its image rises worldwide, and American companies win contracts in the world’s next energy frontier, Africa.

But at the end of the day, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Promising change and delivering it are two different things. Those who are affected by the change to come will fight tooth and nail to thwart it.

After all, didn’t George W Bush promise a Palestinian state all through his presidency? So where is it? He also appointed the first African-Americans as secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Neither proved to be great peacemakers.

A great politician gains power by making great promises, and winning the electorate’s trust. He becomes a great leader only by earning that trust and fulfilling those promises, even if it means putting principle above political expediency.

In electing Mr. Obama, the U.S. public overcame its racial prejudices. But he still needs to help the U.S. public overcome its prejudices against 1.2 billion people whose religion is also part of his heritage, whether he likes it or not.

Given his track record so far, that is unlikely to happen.