RIYADH – While the world’s largest Muslim organization congratulated new US President Barack Obama on Wednesday and urged him to help foster a constructive dialogue between Islam and the West, reaction to his presidency from the Muslim world was generally cautious, though not without optimism.
Obama had vowed in his inauguration speech on Tuesday to seek a “new way forward” with the Muslim world after eight rocky years under his predecessor George W. Bush. He also pledged to “responsibly leave Iraq,” forge a “hard-earned peace” in Afghanistan and work with “old friends and former foes” on nuclear disarmament in a balance of soft and hard diplomacy.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents 1.5 billion Muslims in 57 countries, congratulated Obama “on behalf of the Muslim world on your groundbreaking election as president of the United States.”
“We warmly welcome your expressed desire to give a major address in a Muslim nation soon after you assume the presidency and hope it will mark the beginning of a more fruitful and better-informed dialogue between the West and the Muslim world,” the statement said.
“We firmly believe that America, with your guidance, can help foster that peace, though real peace can only be shared -- never imposed. A nation can either be great or feared, but rarely both at the same time.”
The Jeddah-based OIC said Muslims “have compelling strategic and moral reasons to cooperate and peacefully co-exist with the United States in particular, and with the West in general.”
It welcomed the appointment of a US special representative to the OIC and said the group looked forward to working with Obama’s nominated secretary of state Hillary Clinton who was “no stranger to the Muslim world.”
Abrar Ahmed Islahi , an Advisor of Muslim World League (MWL), expressing his personal opinion, said “the Muslim world would be absolute about him (Obama) when the steps and policies of his administration on Muslim issues are made known clearly.”
Muhammad Aqil , President of Noor Welfare Trust and co-coordinator of Jeddah Da’wah Center said it was “a historical change” that a black man has become an American president.
“I am optimistic, Aqil said. “Obama’s presence in the White House will be better for the Islamic world. We cannot say whether he will really be able to do it, but the Muslim leaders should be hopeful... that he will revoke the allegations against the Muslim world.”
Obama clearly faces a daunting task, especially in the Middle East where Israel’s recent barbarity has caused the death of over 1,200 Palestinians in Gaza.
“This region is looking forward to your handling of the Palestinian cause from the first day of your tenure,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in his cable of congratulations to Obama. “It is an urgent priority and the key to all the other difficult crises of the Middle East,” he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai hailed Obama’s inauguration as the start of a “promising new era of understanding” between Kabul and Washington.
Kuwaiti political analyst Sami Al-Nasef, however, said those who think US policy “will reverse 180 degrees are mistaken because they raise the ceiling of hope too much.”
“Similarly, those who think US policy will not change at all are also mistaken. We have to be realistic,” he said.
Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily, which is close to the Hezbollah-led minority in parliament, was more upbeat. It predicted that with Obama,” US foreign policy in the Middle East will significantly change, especially as concerns Iran.”
“The makeup of his new team indicates a more diplomatic and pragmatic approach that favours dialogue and reconciliation while maintaining Israel’s security as a priority,” the paper said.
Maskuri Abdilah, the head of the Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization with some 60 million followers – said Obama dodged the one issue at the core of the Muslim world’s concerns.
“It is very good that Obama wants to find a ‘new way forward’ ... but first he has to change US policy over Israel and the Palestinian conflict,” he said.
“This is crucial because this problem is the root of all violence and tension between the Islamic world and the West.”
‘I can only pray...’
Khurshid Ahmed, a senior leader in Pakistan’s main religious political party Jamaat-i-Islami, said: “I can only pray. I have some hope but with due caution.”
In neighboring Afghanistan, where Obama is planning to send more troops to fight a stubborn Taleban insurgency, Taleban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi said the radical militia, which was ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, had “no problem with Obama” as long as he pulled US forces out.”
He must learn lessons from Bush and before when the Soviets were here,” he said by phone in Kabul.
”We never gave them the authority to build Afghanistan and decide the fate of this country.”
Israeli leaders, however, expressed confidence Obama would not alter America’s staunchly pro-Israeli stand. “The core policy of the United States will certainly not change,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Chaim Ramon said.
“This policy has two principles: the struggle against terrorism and the need to achieve peace on the basis of two states,” he said, referring to a peace plan supported by the Quartet of key Middle East diplomatic players. – With Sameera Aziz /SG and Agencies