By Hassan Fiaz
An expectant audience of predominantly young, Arab, Muslim students greet the speaker with fervent applause and cheer as he delivers an impassioned speech in support of Palestinian statehood, democratic rights, religious freedoms, and the constructive role that Islam can play in building bridges within an increasingly polarised world. Whilst perhaps evoking images of a revolutionary activist or a charismatic religious preacher, it’s understandably difficult to believe or even remember that this was in fact the scene within which US President Barack Obama delivered an unprecedented address to the Muslim world at Egypt’s Cairo University five and a half years ago. Evocatively entitled ‘A New Beginning’, Obama’s speech was a self-proclaimed attempt at bridging a volatile rift between the West and the Islamic world – a rift which had been so severely widened by years of a destructive and ideologically ambiguous war on terror.
Obama sought to commence this process of reconciliation by laying the foundations for common understanding and progress on what he identified as seven core issues – violent extremism, nuclear weapons (with reference to Iran), democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, economic development, and the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. Of course the vivid picture of progress and harmony painted that day could not be more contrasted with the quagmire of instability and conflicts that plague the Middle East and wider Islamic world today.
As the Arab spring generation confronts the heartbreak of once romantic revolutions, as Pakistan grapples with an irreversibly tangled web of terrorism, and as ISIS continues its destruction of the Muslim world in the name of saving the Muslim world, it would be crude to point fingers at Washington without also acknowledging the internal frictions and coalitions which have led to untold levels of volatility within and amongst a plethora of Muslim states. However, a sobering analysis of what has followed since Obama’s speech in relation to many of the issues he identified reveals not only a dangerous preservation of the imperialist dynamics which helped form such dangerous fractures, but in many cases an exacerbation of them.
So unequivocal had US support been for Israel in recent decades that even the most hardened of cynics would have struggled to not feel some degree of palpable optimism at hearing a US President describe the suffering of the Palestinian people as ‘intolerable’ whilst explicitly declaring the right to a Palestinian state as legitimate and necessary. Yet fast forward to the present day, and Obama’s administration has recently further alienated itself from the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims worldwide by vetoing a proposed UN resolution aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This continued the similar fashion with which the US vetoed UN resolutions on both the condemnation of Israeli settlements and Palestinian statehood back in 2011. The decision to veto on all of these issues has come as little surprise to many – a depressing affirmation of the belligerence and exceptionalism with which the US has continued to define its approach to this conflict and the region in general. In justifying their approach by insisting that “hardships will not cease…until the parties reach a comprehensive settlement achieved through negotiations”, the US continues to flog a long-dead and now farcical negotiation process, which through its sheer ineffectiveness merely facilitates the continued expansion of Israeli settlements and blockade of Gaza.
The United States has however expectedly kept its promise of remaining a firm friend of Israel, maintaining its annual military-aid donations of around $3 million. Aid which no doubt contributed towards the sophisticated weaponry used so brutally in Operation Protective Edge – a bloody month long siege in which over 1500 Gazan civilians lost their lives and an already battered civilian infrastructure suffered further annihilation. This was a tragic reality check for anyone who thought the horrors of Operation Cast Lead carried out towards the end of Bush’s presidency could not or would not be repeated.
On the issue of violent extremism, Obama sought to emphasise that the US was not and never would be at war at with Islam. He also acknowledged that extremism cannot be defeated through military means alone and admitted that America had damaged its credibility by allowing the rule of law to be compromised in the pursuit of its objectives. In response to this, it was declared that Guantanamo Bay would be closed within the year and that America would uphold its responsibility to respect the sovereignty of fellow nations.
Guantanamo Bay of course continues to operate, with the case of British resident Shaker Aamer just one example of how the US justice system continues to sacrifice liberty and the rule of law in the name of national security, despite the limited or almost non-existent grounds for doing so. In the midst of this judicial stagnation, Obama has also overseen an intensified frequency of drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, with many innocent men, women and children paying the price as ‘collateral damage’ for America’s brazen pursuit of terrorist strongholds. These attacks have for years fuelled an already bitter anti-American sentiment within those nations whilst aggravating enmity between Taliban fighters and a Pakistani state which has suffered countless losses in its US-backed pursuit of domestic terror networks. An enmity which as was viciously demonstrated in Peshawar last month can so often culminate with unimaginably devastating consequences.
Even after the death of Osama Bin Laden and the relative demise of Al-Qaeda, the lure of extremism and violence in the name of Islam remains as strong as ever – both for Muslims living in the safety and comfort of western states as well as for those in Muslim countries. By continuing to treat ‘Islamic extremism’ as some kind of determinable physical entity that can be destroyed through violence, the ideological grounds on which its associated acts of terror are based remain as firm as they always has been.
Four of the issues identified by Obama – democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development, were at the forefront of the Arab Spring movements which swept throughout the region in 2011. The multi-faceted grievances of a people whose rights to self-expression, dignity and progress had been stifled since the colonial era were finally being laid bare for the world and its leaders to digest, whether they liked it or not.
However as the warm optimism of the Arab spring eventually gave way to the bitterly cold realities of the Arab winter, it could perhaps be considered twisted fate that it was in Cairo that Obama so boldly talked of the need for “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.” For it is from Cairo now that a brutal crackdown on human rights and justice has been orchestrated following last summer’s military coup which deposed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in an estimated 16,000 political prisoners and the death of around 1200 protestors – including the 624 civilians who were killed during a ruthless massacre in Rabaa.
The continued receipt of $1.3billion in US aid will no doubt further embolden the military and its autocratic influence and power – the conviction with which the US has long talked of promoting rights and freedoms in the region being seemingly exposed as mere lip service. The serious implications of renewed cordial ties with the tyranny of Egypt’s military cannot be understated given the significance of the Brotherhood’s demise within the context of political Islam in the region. By abandoning an Islamist movement which had embraced the democratic process to the savagery of Sisi’s regime, America finds itself on the wrong side of history for millions of Islamists who had put faith in the much vaunted promises of democracy and its ideals. Worryingly, the true legacy of this will only be known in generations to come.
So what can be taken away from this analysis? Rhetoric being contradicted by policy is hardly a ground-breaking revelation in global politics, particularly when it comes to American foreign policy. However, there are crucial lessons to be considered regarding the nature of both American and global power structures. It made little if any political sense at all for Obama to directly discuss and confront such issues of contention if he did not at the time have the genuine will to follow up on them with what was the central theme of his electoral campaign – change. Yet enforcing political reform is so much more than a matter of will, and in an atmosphere of competing interests from political forces, allies, the oil industry, intelligence agencies, a pro-Zionist lobby and a global arms industry now dependant upon the war on terror, following through on or even maintaining such will was always going to be a task of gargantuan difficulty.
There is also a poignant reflection to be made on the dissolution of hope which has in many ways become a defining feature of Obama’s presidency. If bridging years of mistrust between the US and the Muslim world was dependent upon a presidential CV, few candidates would stand out above Obama – he himself made reference to the Muslim heritage on his father’s side and the influential childhood years he spent in Indonesia. Yet in what will this month be his seventh year as US President, the fact that Obama has not sat with a single Arab journalist since 2009 in many ways epitomises his growing detachment from engagement and mutual trust with the region and its people. This loss of confidence reciprocates a theme prevalent within Obama’s performance on domestic issues, as the hope with which analysts predicted his electoral success would bridge racial divides in American society has been dissipated by worsened racial economic and social inequality, alongside explosive racial tensions witnessed in the streets of Ferguson and elsewhere.
Finally, it is expedient to juxtapose the perpetuation of imperialist policies with the powerful outburst of expression that occurred during uprisings across the Middle East & North Africa. Whilst Obama mentioned the importance of recognising that America and Islam “need not be in competition”, it is essential to acknowledge the complex mesh of competing interests, ideologies and forces at play within the Muslim world itself. The ways in which the leaders and people of Muslim states confront these will be of far more significance than any change in American foreign policy. New beginnings may make for great speeches, but for states and societies whose very fabric is sewn together from the cloth of its people and history, areas of damage can only ever be patched up, not replaced.
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