[Asharq al-Awsat, U.K.]



Financial Times Deutschland, Germany

Obama's Brain Twister: Selecting a Muslim Venue


"The Obama team finds itself in a dilemma as it prepares for a speech considered historic even before it has been delivered ... The intended demonstration of respect for the Muslim world is a great vehicle, but there are many small obstacles lurking beneath the road."


By Benjamin Dierks



Translated By Jonathan Lobsien


February 4, 2009


Germany - Financial Times Deutschland - Original Article (German)

The cartoon from the Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates reflects the moment all Muslims are waiting for: his speech in a 'Muslim capital.'


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In the coming months, the U.S. president wants to give a major reconciliation address in a Muslim country. There are good reasons to prefer a city far from the Arab world.


No sooner had Barack Obama announced his desire to deliver a speech in an important Muslim city, than many began to dream of receiving a visit by the great man. For instance, Rafaat Othman, professor of Islamic law at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, cannot imagine a more appropriate place than the mosque at his own educational establishment. After all, mosques and universities are among the oldest and most prestigious institutions in Sunni Islam. And religious scholars here, time and again, have condemned the terrorist acts of religious fundamentalists.


But Othman will be disappointed. So much symbolism is wrapped up in the location of Obama's speech that when choosing a suitable atmosphere, his advisors will have to check twice. And when they do so, they'll find that a certain Izz ad-Din al-Qassam , a terrorist of an earlier hour who preyed upon Jewish settlers in the 1930’s during the British Mandate of Palestine , once studied at Al-Azhar. Today, the Qassam rocket, with which the radical Islamic Hamas provoked the war in Gaza, bares his name. In addition, Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, also set down his prayer rug here. Therefore, this isn't such a good choice.




This small example illustrates the dilemma in which the Obama team finds itself, as it prepares for a speech considered historic even before it has been delivered. The intended demonstration of respect for the Muslim world is a great vehicle, but there are many small obstacles lurking beneath the road. To continue with Egypt, there's a lot to argue for an appearance in this, the largest Arab country. Cairo is one of few governments in the region that maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel and is one of the most important allies of the United States. In both the conflict between Israel and Hamas and the conflict between Hamas and its rival Fatah, the Egyptians excelled as mediators.





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This attitude of Egypt is worthy of support. So it's not without reason that observers in Washington count this land as a favorite for Obama’s appearance. But the domestic political situation looks different: A symbolic visit to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak doesn't lend itself to sending a signal of a new beginning. It would sound like mockery for Obama to call for the respect of human rights and democracy while standing at Mubarak’s side. In fact, the U.S. President would certainly encounter this problem in most Arab countries.



What's more, a broader problem presents itself: Obama’s team set a new standard during the campaign and the inauguration. To Obama's PR-experts, who take account of every political consideration, the backdrop for the speech is no small matter. Obama knows that jubilant crowds before the lectern can't be taken for granted, despite the hope that rests on him. Counter-demonstrations can be assured in many countries, even in Egypt. Fundamental positions such as Obama's attitude toward Israel will not change - and with good reason. Disillusionment is inevitable for many.


Turkey Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan storms out of a debate on the Middle East after an exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jan. 29.


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Moreover, in the short and medium term, there are several reasons to exclude nearby lands as well. Not only due to the appearance at Davos of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey - a NATO partner and vital U.S. ally who has established an incongruous closeness to Hamas [Erdogan walked out of an appearance with Israeli President Shimon Peres (photo, left) during a discussion on Gaza. Walkout occurs at 01:04:00 WATCH ]. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it would still appear like an appearance by the occupier, and Pakistan is too tightly intertwined with Afghanistan.


Again and again, the names of small Gulf states and North African countries have been mentioned. Qatar stands out because of its attempt to chart its own foreign policy course. But since Hamas leader Khaled Mashal gave thanks to the attitude of the country in regard to the war on Gaza, Qatar is immediately disqualified. Besides, going to Qatar would be an affront to Saudi Arabia, which is ineligible because it is one of the most oppressive countries. An appearance in Oman or Morocco would diminish the significance of the event. It must be a politically important country in which Obama speaks. And it must be one that deserves attention. That narrows it down.  





In Washington, one alternative which would also seem obvious to Obama personally, is brought up again and again: Indonesia. It was here that he spent years of his childhood, and which has given him tremendous popularity in the Muslim world. But many warn that Obama would thereby offend Arabs and relativize his commitment to the region. Southeast Asia might be an apolitical alternative. But is it really?


But for all the domestic political reservations: With an appearance in the country with the largest Muslim population, Obama would demonstrate that the Muslim world extends far beyond North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The message could be that Arab lands have no undisputed entitlement to the leadership of the Muslim world. Obama has a way of showing a lot of courtesy; the American admits his mistakes. Now he can signal that the Arab world also has obligations to fulfill. And it's safe to say that cheering crowds would be there for him in Jakarta.



































[Posted by WORLDMEETS.US February 8, 9:49pm]