Osama bin Laden, among others, has his work cut out for him when he seeks to convince potential followers that Barack Obama and George W. Bush are birds of a proverbial feather.
“Obama has followed the footsteps of his predecessor in increasing animosity toward Muslims and increasing enemy fighters and establishing long-term wars,” Osama complained in an audio message released Wednesday. “Obama and his administration have planted new seeds to increase hatred and revenge from America. The number of those seeds is the same as the number of those harmed and displaced from Swat Valley and the tribal regions in North and South Waziristan and the number of their sympathizers.”
Obama’s name, face, and personal history offer him unmatched credibility for a Western leader to put a lie to their fanciful (and murderous) suggestions.
Far be it from your humble correspondent to try to gauge the appeal of this or that bin Laden accusation to the fence-sitting potential jihadist, but it strikes me that an American president who is fighting a war against an enemy that attacked us and murdered our civilians, as al Qaeda did, and is now increasing its strength along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, is by definition a more difficult target for hatred incitement than one who gratuitously invades a Muslim country that had nothing whatever to do with said attack.
What’s more, an awful lot of Muslims are themselves horrified by the specter of Taliban-style rule in their own countries and appreciate the efforts of an army that is seeking to prevent its spread throughout the region, whatever its reasons. Sore loser John Kerry blamed his 2004 loss to George W. Bush on the release of a bin Laden tape just days before the election. Thankfully, America is finally ready to say “goodbye” to all that.
For much of Wednesday, the screaming headline on the Drudge Report was “The Emergence of President Obama’s Muslim Roots.” Oddly enough, the foolishness of the headline was not Drudge’s foolishness; rather, it belonged to whomever chose to give that silly headline to a blog post by ABC’s Jake Tapper.
In fact, Obama has no “Muslim roots” beyond the fact that he grew up in a few Muslim countries. (His father, whom he barely knew, was, he says, “basically agnostic.”) The dude is a Christian who was raised by a Christians and attends Christian churches, one of which got him into a heap of trouble during the election campaign with the same people who on other days were convinced he was a secret Muslim.
You’d think that if America were to benefit anywhere on earth from its amazing accomplishment of not only electing a black man to be president, but a black man with the name “Barack Hussein Obama,” it would be in the Arab and Islamic world. And you’d be right. While Bush and Dick Cheney took the caricature of the “ugly American” to extremes undreamed of in most Middle Eastern imaginations, Obama is the anti-Bush, (and anti-Cheney) in almost every respect, beginning with the color of his skin, and ending with the tenor and substance of his words. As Tapper reports, in his April 6 address to the Turkish parliament, Obama noted that many “Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim majority country. I know, because I am one of them.” How un-Bush can you be?
Of course, deeds will speak louder than words. While they may not have access to NPR or MSNBC, most of the world’s billion or so Muslims surely must have heard that Obama won the 2008 election as the anti-Bush. He condemned torture. He promised to close Gitmo. He pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. And even more important as far as the Arab “street” goes, he has profoundly changed the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations from carte blanche to tough love. On Wednesday, we received reports from Jerusalem that the Israelis were miffed over the Obama administration’s unyielding stance over the expansion of illegal settlements on the West Bank and felt that “understandings” they had reached with the Bush administration were being breached by the new president.
While bin Laden and company may be motivated by their own peculiar brand of Wahhabism, it is their ability to exploit the everyday horror of the West Bank and Gaza that lies at the center of their appeal to the wider Muslim world.
Obama’s name, face, and personal history offer him unmatched credibility for a Western leader to put a lie to their fanciful (and murderous) suggestions. But what is really needed to close this deal, to borrow a phrase from anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, is the “propaganda of the deed”—that is, a series of policies that Middle Easterners can at least understand, if not entirely appreciate. It’s no east task, perhaps, but it can hardly be more difficult than getting elected president of the United States as a black man with the middle name “Hussein” and a last name that rhymes with “Osama.”
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.