An Arab proverb says that a madman throws a stone in a drinking well and 100 wise men are needed to get the stone out. This proverb applies to the gigantic effort that US President Barack Obama will have to exert as he attempts to clean up the mess his predecessor created in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
As in the proverb, the problem of regaining trust requires 100 times the effort made to lose it. Trust obviously cannot be built just with words, even though words, and the right words, have a lot of meaning.
Muslims and Arabs would like to hear much from Obama, starting with Palestine, Iraq and the US military presence in the Gulf.
Palestine has become the litmus test for the US foreign policy because it has exposed the US’ hypocrisy. Examples of the double standard include US bias in favour of Israel while it claims to be an honest broker, its push for “democracy” while rejecting the results of Palestinian elections, and its silence on Israeli nuclear weapons while blasting Iranian nuclear efforts.
While foreign policy is crucial, a sincere show of respect and attempt to rebuild trust are more important.
There are huge expectations for Obama. Arabs and Muslims appreciate and respect American values of democracy and human rights, but the disreputable actions of US soldiers, politicians as well as the Congress and the media have led many to question the US commitment to its stated values.
For years Americans have repeatedly spoken about a special value system that binds America with Israel, making repeated references to the Judeo-Christian heritage. This needs to be replaced by an approach appealing to universal values based on human rights, self-determination and opposition to occupation and dictatorships.
Obama would do well to reflect on passages from the Islamic text that speak about human rights and the dignity of human beings. The Koran clearly calls for protection of civilians and the environment, especially during times of war: “You must not mutilate, neither kill a child or aged man or woman. Do not destroy a palm tree, nor burn it with fire and do not cut any fruitful tree.”
Seventh century Islam’s second Caliph Omar Ibn Khatab’s famous question, “why have you enslaved humans when they were born free”, is probably the basis for the first article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
President Obama’s calls for democracy in the Arab world can similarly be based on Islam’s shura concept. The story of the same caliph’s words and actions in Jerusalem, where he refused to pray in the Church of Holy Sepulcher but chose, instead, to pray farther away from it, is also a fabulous story taught in school to all Arab children as an example of respect and tolerance.
While Obama needs to find a way to express regret for the past words and actions of American officials, it is more important to convince people that America is planning to change course.
No one expects the US president to totally change US policy, but people will welcome efforts to turn a new page based on fairness and trust. Obama could weaken the accusations of American double standards and help dispel the false connection between Muslims and terrorism – as well as demonstrating a reason to trust an American president – by establishing low-level negotiations with the elected members of the Palestinian legislature who ran as members of the Islamic Reform-and-Change Bloc. Talking to the political wing of Hamas is no different from talking to the leaders of Iran, which Obama promised to do while campaigning and has made into policy after being sworn in.