After the Crusader

I could not have been in a better place to witness Barack Obama elected president of the United States.

By Rageh Omaar

Published: Sat 7 Feb 2009, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:51 AM

I may have been thousands of miles away from that windswept Chicago park where he made his victory speech to a delirious multicoloured and multi-faith crowd, but the Middle East is where much of the “change” he has promised to America and the rest of the world will be first tested.

I was in northern Syria, close to the border with Lebanon, filming a documentary about the impact of the Crusades on relations between the west and the Islamic world. The five Syrians I was with, Muslims and Orthodox Christians and, like most people in the Middle East, still in their 30s, each said they had prayed for an Obama victory.

But when I asked them if they really thought he would deliver meaningful change in US policy in the Middle East, every one said it was unlikely. What mattered, they said, was a change in attitude and language; a belief that conflict need not be the only basis for a relationship between the US and the Arab and Muslim world - the legacy of George Bush’s administration.

The unilateralist, “you’re either with us or against us” world view has been forgiven. More significantly, Obama spells an end to the absolutist evangelical Christianity that skewed Bush’s policies so dramatically in favour of Israel.

Many have been quick to point out that Obama has so far said little of real substance. He has appointed two tough but open-minded envoys: George Mitchell to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke to Pakistan and Afghanistan - a counterbalance to the perceived pro-Israeli bias of secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But apart from that, the impression many people have is that his main strength is that he’s not Bush. I disagree, however.

Europeans often underestimate the effect of the Bush presidency on how they are perceived in the Arab and Muslim world. Describing just how wilfully reckless and divisive the Bush administration has been in this regard is dismissed as simple anti-Americanism. The reality is that over the last eight years the belief that America is out to get Muslims and Arabs has spread so far that it is now common throughout most levels of society from Morocco to Indonesia.

Turning this around will be one of the most important foreign policy tests of Obama’s first term. The only way it can be done is as part of a fundamental rethink in policies and initiatives relating to the Islamic world. And I think he’s begun well. Announcing the end of Guantánamo, secret CIA prisons and torture goes far beyond simply changing America’s image. It’s a direct challenge to Al Qaida, for whom Guantánamo has been a major recruiting tool. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of language too.

The most important part of Barack Obama’s interview last week with the Arabic language satellite channel, Al-Arabiya, was to tell people in the Middle East that he believed one of his most important jobs as president was to convince Muslims that “America is not your enemy”. But he went further, speaking in a way that he had avoided during the campaign, mentioning his many Muslim relatives and the fact that he grew up in a Muslim country. During the campaign his opponents saw this background as a political weakness that could cost him the White House. Now it is one of the biggest political assets America has in dealing with the Muslim world.

There is one aspect of the president that is not yet widely discussed in the west but is being talked about in the independent Arabic and Iranian media: the challenge he represents to Middle Eastern governments, particularly Iran.

Obama made clear that engaging with Iran would be a priority if he were elected - and he began that process as early as his inauguration speech, when he promised to extend a hand of friendship to those who unclenched their fist. Indications are that he is to write a letter to the Iranian authorities offering direct talks, with the hope that these could begin a process of rapprochement between the two countries.

Iran has had no relations with the US since the Islamic revolution, 30 years ago. I have spent a lot of time in Iran over the last three years, and what has struck me is just how different a country it is today. Two thirds of its nearly 70 million people are under 30, and so have no recollection of life under the previous regime. They want an end to political and economic isolation.

It is hard for the authorities to make the ideals of the Islamic revolution relevant for such a generation; an American president who says “let’s talk”, therefore, is a challenge. Refusing Obama is a tough proposition domestically -- and it’s not just in Iran that this is true: Obama is also a challenge for Syria and Hamas.

As a CIA official admitted last week, Bush was “the perfect foil” for groups and countries as diverse as Iran, Syria, Al Qaida and Hamas. Obama may represent their hardest challenge. One that hopefully involves ideas, rather than bullets.

Rageh Omar presents programme titled Witness on Al Jazeera English. This article first appeared in the Observer

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