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An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Aijaz Zaka Syed
Filed on November 13, 2008

Dear Mr Obama,

This may never pass your eyes. At a time when the whole world is excited about your landmark election and everybody who is somebody is talking about your meteoric rise, this could be dismissed as just another outpouring of emotions from the Middle East.

Even if this doesn’t find its way to your table, we’ll at least have the consolation of having tried our best to persuade you what the world, especially the Middle East, expects from you and what a great opportunity you have of changing it for the better.

We may be ridiculed for our naïve idealism and for daring to hope the global agenda of the reigning superpower could be influenced by individuals sitting thousands of miles away in Dubai.

But there’s no harm in trying, is there? Besides, after your own incredible victory riding on a wave of idealism and message of hope, no one can ever suggest idealism doesn’t work. You wouldn’t be where you are today without idealism and faith and the incredible power of dreams.

It’s this power that can take a ‘skinny guy with a funny name’ to White House. You must now be acutely conscious of the impossibly high expectations the American people and the rest of the world have from you.

These hopes are only natural considering what the world has been through during the past eight years under George W Bush.

From Iraq to Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Bay, this administration has never been short on ideas of violating human dignity.

But to give your predecessor his due, he was equally indifferent to the business of governance at home. So while residents of New Orleans were being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, the leader of the free world went biking. Ditto the current economic crisis. W slept while the Wall Street burnt.

Dear Mr Obama, The Americans have elected you hoping you could put out the Bush fires. They believe you could clear this spectacular mess.

In picking up an African American with a Muslim father and a name that is often mistaken for Osama and who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, the Americans have indeed made a historic choice.

By electing you they have in one stroke changed global perceptions about America, restoring the world’s faith in the land of the free.

Because at heart we are all Americans and love America and all that it stands for -- or once stood for. Your election proves, as you kept saying in your campaign speeches and in the thrilling election night speech in Chicago, that all things are possible in America.

But if your choice was ground-breaking, the hopes, aspirations and dreams your ascent has created in and outside America and challenges you face are equally formidable.

But if anyone can meet these daunting challenges confronting America and the world at large, it’s you. Your unusual life story is a celebration of the Audacity of Hope. You are, after all, the blessed one. Barack in Arabic, as you must know, means blessing. So perhaps there’s a design in your being chosen for this most difficult of all jobs. We are sure you can, and will, successfully negotiate your great country through the minefield of difficult times ahead.

But your responsibility does not end with America. There’s a message in the frenzied adulation for you and celebrations across the globe over your victory: The world sees you as its leader and expects leadership from you.

Which is why it’s heartening to see you move with remarkable alacrity to put America back on track. Even though you are yet to formally take over from Bush, you already have your team in place and are taking steps to reverse the divisive and most disastrous policies of this administration.

The world is already delighted by your decision to shut the Guantanamo Bay gulag in Cuba and either free the detainees or try them in the US courts. This is something that your heroes Abe Lincoln, Emerson and Martin Luther King would all approve.

But in all honesty, most of those men at the Bay have already suffered enough for crimes they did not commit.

One of them, Omar Khadr, was captured in Afghanistan during the US Invasion in 2001 when he was only 15. He has spent six years in a hole. His crime? Being the son of parents who had been working in Afghanistan. There are hundreds of Omar Khadrs out there. And all of them deserve justice. Others who deserve justice and your attention are the Palestinians.

They, too, have been paying dearly for nearly seven decades now. Or rather, they’ve been paying for someone else’s crimes. Today, prisoners in their own land and their ghettos, they are fighting for survival, literally!

Throughout your campaign, you’ve talked of hope and change and America believed in you. It has embraced you because it knows it needs someone like you to bring it the change it badly needs.

Mr Obama, we in the Middle East believe in you too. There are some who are already nervous about your choice for White House chief of staff. But we would rather look at the big picture. A Jewish chief of staff doesn’t necessarily mean you are anti-Arab or anti-Muslim. What matters is your general direction and outcome of your policies.

We still believe that if anyone can bring hope and change to the world’s most volatile region, it’s you. With your unusual background, representing both Christianity and Islam, both black and white and both East and West, you are uniquely placed to bring hope and change to the region that has been the cradle of civilizations and three great faiths. And you must begin this mission right away, before you get used to power; or power and its compulsions get the better of you.

The Middle East, more specifically the Palestine question, is the key to global peace. From the war in Iraq to militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, everything is linked to Palestine. You bring peace to the Middle East and the world will find its peace. You change the Middle East and you’ll change the world.

Write to author at Aijaz@khaleejtimes.com


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