Thursday, July 17, 2008

Will Obama Deliver Change?

As the US presidential elections get closer, the Democratic and Republican nominees are articulating their policy positions on foreign and domestic issues. Since the winner is likely to impact not just the United States but the entire world, close attention is being paid to the major policy speeches of Barack Obama and John McCain around the world. I have selected some of the commentary and analyses relevant to Muslim Americans and Pakistani Americans from various media to share with you.

Here are some excepts from a piece Pakistan Should Shudder; Afghanistan Should Despair by By Brian Cloughley, a guest writer on Reuters Blog:

Senator Obama’s foreign policy advisers and slick speechwriters had him say that “The greatest threat to our security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan. We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as president I won’t … We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.”

Further to that comparatively minor slaughter (after all, what’s the death of a few innocent villagers, here and there?) has Senator Obama any notion of how many soldiers of the Pakistan army and the Frontier Corps have been killed in combating militants who were driven into Pakistan by the US invasion of Afghanistan, or who were turned to militancy by these unwelcome refugees? Does he know that well over a thousand grieving families of the army and the Frontier Corps have suffered the loss of sons, husbands, fathers and brothers because the US army is incapable of securing its side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?

Of course not: because his speechwriters concentrate only on the sharp, US-centric aspects of international affairs. They care nothing about the sacrifices of Pakistan in this US-created conflict. He doesn’t know that Pakistan has been host to millions of Afghan refugees for decades. (No other country in the world has been forced to look after so many refugees for so long - a horrible global record, which is hardly the fault of Pakistan.)

And if any talk-show interviewer asked Senator Obama “How many Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan” he wouldn’t have a clue what was being talked about. The fact that over a million Afghans are still in Pakistan and don’t want to go back to their own country because it is in a state of ungovernable chaos is neither here nor there to the presidential candidate, or to most of the world, in fact. Doesn’t it dawn on anyone that in that million (about 1.3 million, according to the UN) Afghans in Pakistan there are many who have reason to detest the present regime in Kabul and who want to get rid of it by fair means or preferably foul?

Let’s have no nonsense about the Pakistan government failing to do “more” about the Pakistan-Afghan border. Islamabad proposed that a barrier be built, and actually provided a detailed scheme for it. I attended a briefing by the former foreign minister of Pakistan at which he described it in detail. (Although I did not agree at all with the proposal to plant anti-personnel mines. I’ve seen too much of the effects of Soviet mines on Afghan children - the shattered legs and hands, the total destruction of youthful aspirations - to ever imagine that mines are anything but evil. OK, so I used them - Claymore mines - when in ambush in Borneo when we were fighting the Indonesians who wanted to take over Malaysia, decades ago; but I’ve changed my mind, having visited hospitals full of Afghan kids who have had their arms or legs blown off.) Predictably, however, the Kabul government vetoed the project, although a few miles of fences were eventually erected in spite of that stupid objection, which was entirely to do with Afghanistan’s insular objection to the well-established legality of the border.

But if America can’t secure its own border with Mexico, in spite of annual expenditure of billions of dollars in security measures, how can it expect Pakistan to seal its frontier with Afghanistan? Half a million illegal immigrants cross from Mexico into the US each year, including criminals of all natures, and, no doubt, some terrorists intent on mayhem in America. Yet Washington - and Senator Obama - make the demand that Pakistan stop all the militants and drug smugglers who want to move to and from their areas of operation.

Senator Obama declares that “The greatest threat to our security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” No it doesn’t: it lies in the ignorance of those who fail to understand the problem.

Dr. Nazir Khaja, Chairman of Islamic Information Service in Los Angeles writes:

Much to the disappointment of the Muslim community the interaction of the Obama campaign and the Senator himself with issues related to Islam and Muslims leads one to draw a different conclusion. It appears to the Muslims that there is clearly a dissonance between the Senator's words and his actions pertaining to his campaign’s handling of issues that relate to the Muslim community and Islam. Either he is poorly informed or he prefers being politically correct or in-fact both.
Going back to the beginning of his campaign when the issue of the Senator being a "closet Muslim" was raised by those who wanted to discredit him, his response appropriately was to reaffirm his Christian Faith on public airways and dispel the falsehood. This was proper and yet it left the Muslim community thinking as to why he could not go the extra distance to point out to his inquisitors that even if he was a Muslim, why was it such an offence in a nation which upholds religious freedom and equality. The sensitivity around this question and the need for the Senator to be politically correct was understood by the Muslim community, which continued to respond to his message with great enthusiasm. They were left wondering though if the senator was accused of being a Jew, would he be responding in the same manner.

I have written recently in a post Is "Muslim" a Derogatory Epithet in America as follows:

Lately, the Democratic Party presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, has been under "suspicion" of being a "closet Muslim". He and his campaign have denied it and rejected the "Muslim" label as though it were an unflattering epithet. In fact, some of the Obama staffers have become so sensitive to this "charge" that they refused to seat hijab-wearing Muslim women supporters behind Obama on stage in front of the cameras at a recent rally in Michigan. Instead of ridiculing the lies about Obama, the latest New Yorker magazine cover has in fact served to reinforce the rumors and innuendos about Muslims and his Muslim connections.

In spite of vociferous rejections of the "Muslim" label and repeated denials by Barack Obama, a significant number of Americans continue to believe Obama is Muslim. Based on recent polls, about 10-12% of the Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. Another 12% believe he took oath of office for the Senate on the Quran. A whopping 39% believe he attended an Islamic madrassa in Indonesia as a child.

While Senator Obama talks about change, he is doing what every presidential candidate has done in the US: Follow the conventional wisdom to pander to the voters. As Ralph Nader put it, "Obama is an overly cautious captive of his handlers". He is shifting his positions on just about every issue of substance, domestic or foreign. He recently agreed with the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Washington DC gun ban. He has started talking about asking the commanders on the ground in Iraq on when and how to withdraw from Iraq, rather than just give them a withdrawal time-line. He has become extremely hawkish on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has been playing up the fears of terrorism, just like George Bush, to establish his national security credentials. He has stopped talking about the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. The list goes on and on. He may well be elected, in spite of, or as a result of these shifts. But will this represent the message of CHANGE that brought him where he is? I have a feeling that the young, idealistic supporters of Obama expect real change from him. If he does not deliver on it, he would at best be a one-term president, if at all, causing people to be disillusioned by the Democrats once again.


Anonymous said...

I don't know what "Islamic sentiments" means! Sen. Obama surely did some flip-flops and only time will tell how he performs since he is a wild card. I think the initial promises made by Obama could be his attempt at "product differentiation" as against the mighty Sen.Hillary to throw her off balance. But now as a candidate he will give more ear to strategic analysts than the "street" which always is emotive on issues. Its a good sign if that is the case, becoz USA though imperfect is the best available world policemen and don't have the luxury of mistakes. I think so called "Islamic sentiments"(relating more to Islamic than a human being sharing earth) would be side-lined more and more in Western World after people see sights like grand reception for "child-killer" in Lebanon.The main problem is credibility - because the main torch bearers of "Islamic sentiments" like Saudi regime and Malaysia regime are unbelievably racists and contempt for human rights are well known. So Tony Blair's "peace loving religion" cliche speeches will be the norm, since everyone know the ground rules. Plz admit it nobody gives a damn for Palestinians, its an ego problem and its about anti-Israel than a humanitarian sentiment.

Riaz Haq said...

I am not sure where you picked up "Islamic sentiments" and in what context. I do know that there is Muslim vote in America, just like Jewish vote and Christian vote. Although Muslim vote usually gets ignored in US politics, it could become the deciding factor in some battleground states such as Michigan, Florida and Ohio, where winner takes all even if he/she gets 1 more vote than the other candidate.

On Sen Obama, I agree that he is a wild card, although he has a lot of people, including American Muslims, excited by his message of change after 8 disastrous years under Bush.

When you mention "child-killer" reception and Saudi Arabia and Malaysia in the same breath, your are assuming that over a billion Muslims from all parts of the world are a monolith with identical views on all issues. This is painting a fifth of humanity with single broad-brush. You need to learn more about the Muslim world before making such broad generalizations.

On Palestinians, I am sure you would give a damn and not call it an "ego problem" if you were on the receiving end of the daily torture of occupation, checkpoints, closures and humiliation after most of your land had been usurped from you.

Anonymous said...

First of all about my understanding of the muslims,two of the female muslim friends i have are the ones i admire and respect becoz of their unbelievable integrity and sincerity(i wouldnt like 2 mention about the guys & spoil the post) though religion is a detail that seldom affects our contacts.

I mentioned Saudi Arabia and Malaysia deliberately since both are very racists, though Malaysia have a facade of modernity but follows 'bhumiputra'
policies and aggressive with sentiments of ethnic minorities.Saudi Kingdom is the epitome of stone age and barbaric behavior who happens to ban slavery as late as 1962.

As to where i picked up "muslim sentiment" is to why "muslim" commentators use muslim as a homogeneous category when there is no such category in practice. Of course there is so much artificial political inventions like islamic charities(that only cares abt tsunami& earthquake effected "muslim" regions),islamic countries,islamic terrorists. I think the main problem with "muslims" is they think islam as a culture rather than religion. There is pasthun culture,Bengali culture,Punjabi,Sindhi culture,Indonesian culture,Malaysian culture but i dont believe there is an islamic culture pervading all these dissimilar countries. Becoz for a culture some sort of homogeneity in language,way of life etc.
just my thoughts.

Riaz Haq said...

Each one of us has more than one identities: nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, gender etc. Depending on the individual, one of these identities becomes dominant in their lives. So, if some commentators choose to emphasize their Muslim identity, I have no quarrel with that. But it still does not make all Muslims a uniform monolith. They still retain their other identities alongside their religious identity. Only when a certain people begin to be persecuted because of one or more of their identities that it becomes important in the eyes of the world. History is full of examples: Black persecution in America, Muslim persecution in Bosnia, Jewish persecution in Europe etc etc. Unfortunately, Muslims find themselves a target of hate in many parts of the world today because of the actions a few misguided co-religionists. In fact, Muslims themselves are the biggest victims of these fanatics amongst them, who have killed far more of their own co-religionists than people of other regions/nationalities. So, most Muslims see these fanatics as a problem that must be dealt with seriously.

Anonymous said...

This domination of one identity over the other is very interestingly point and is comprehensively broken down and analyzed in Amartya Sen's "Identity and Violence". I think the Jews are the most successful in turning the collective sense of persecution and channelize it in a positive way and rewarded judiciously by those efforts with their "Never Again" spirit.In case of Muslims, I think the wrong people took the role of torchbearers in different points of time(in modern times) like Nasser,Arafat,Nasrallah etc all with selfish political objectives. This is the most telling aspect, in his interview Samir Kuntar said he want to be known as the "amazing arab".I deduce that then this is a leadership problem, there is no honest popular leader catering to this dominant identity of "Muslims". On top of it there are viral concepts like Wahhabism infecting places like Kashmir,Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Thailand,Indonesia(which hitherto had their own tolerant islam) etc.

Riaz Haq said...

Nasser, the Shah of Iran and Arafat were nationalists. Unfortunately for their people, they were also autocratic, corrupt and incompetent. Their bad governance created opportunities for Islamists who were free to use the mosques while other legitimate, secular political opposition was suppressed. When these leaders left, they left vacuum or chaos behind which was filled by the resurgent Islamists. The US partiality to dictators in Middlle East has been part of the problem that prevented genuine secular, democratic forces from gaining strength. And the blind, unqualified US support of Israel has helped push many Muslims into the arms of the merchants of hate in the Arab and Muslim world. So there are many factors. But, you are right, the bottom line is that Muslim nations have been cursed with leaders from hell. And these leaders emerged from the population after the colonial rulers left them to their own devices.