BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has awoken hope for redress of grievances in the hearts of some of the more than a billion Muslims scattered in diverse communities across the globe.
To win their minds, sceptical after a “war on terror” waged by his predecessor George W. Bush that many saw as an assault on Islam, Obama must follow his speech to the Muslim world this week with evidence of real change in U.S. policy and outlook.
That, at least, is a common thread stressed by politicians and analysts from Muslim-majority countries — as is the urgency of U.S. action to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From Kuala Lumpur to Kabul, from Ramallah to Riyadh, the messages for Obama throb with that central concern, along with a yearning for a break from the divisive, militaristic, pro-Israel stance many Muslims associate with the eight-year Bush era.
“It’s not too late to repair relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world,” said Tifatul Sembiring, president of an Islamist party in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. “But Obama has to give us some proof that there will not be another opportunistic war, such as happened in Iraq.”
Sembiring, who leads the PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or Prosperous Justice Party), homed in on the Palestinian issue.
“Are they (the Americans) serious about creating a real solution for Palestine? We are waiting for justice on this.”
Obama’s best chance to win over Muslims and Arabs was to use Washington’s leverage on its Israeli ally, said Saudi political analyst Turad al-Amri. “By pressuring Israel, Obama will win in more than one area — in terrorism, the Iran file, Lebanon.”
The U.S. president has said Israel must halt all settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, a demand that sets him on a collision course with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, Obama’s task was to ensure creation of a Palestinian state. “People of this region don’t want to hear words any more. They want to see deeds,” he said.
In Kabul, Afghan lawmaker Sabrina Saqib said Obama’s roots, as a black American with a Muslim father, meant he understood deprivation and would work to settle the Palestinian issue.
“One speech will not work, but it’s good for a start,” she said of Obama’s planned address on Thursday. “When you pay homage to others and respect them, you enliven their spirit.”
Even foes of U.S. policy acknowledge Obama has struck a new tone, but say his outreach to Iran and Syria and pledge to press for Middle East peace have yet to shift the political landscape.
“The change of U.S. language under Obama must be translated on the ground,” said Ali Baraka, deputy representative of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement in Damascus.
“The first step would be to pressure (Israel) to stop its aggression against Gaza and lift the siege on the Strip.”
In Iran, Mohammad Marandi, a professor who heads North American Studies at Tehran University, said Obama was “slowly running out of time” to repair the U.S. image in the region.
He called for “substantial change” in U.S. foreign policy toward the non-Western world, without detailing how Iran, under scrutiny over its nuclear programme, might reciprocate.
Asked what he would like Obama to say, Marandi said: “That the U.S. no longer sees itself as a country which is exceptional and has exceptional rights. It’s a country like all others ... I think Muslims and non-Muslims would all like to hear that.”
Obama’s decision to make Cairo the venue for his appeal to the Muslim world drew criticism as well as understanding.
“He could have thought out of the box and chosen Indonesia or even Malaysia to give a new shift in the paradigm for addressing the Muslim world’s issues,” said Dzulkifli Ahmad, strategist for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
Choosing Cairo showed Obama was “still well within that Middle East-centric approach,” he said, adding that President Hosni Mubarak was not viewed as representing the Muslim world.
Lebanese political analyst Ousama Safa said there was no escaping the rift fraying the fabric of Muslim-Western ties.
“We shouldn’t hide behind our fingers,” he said. “There is an Arab Muslim-Western tension weighing very heavily on global relationships, so it’s very relevant that Obama comes here.”
But Marandi, the Iranian scholar, whose Shi’ite-led country is one of Egypt’s fiercest regional rivals, described Cairo as “probably the worst possible choice” Obama could have made.
“It’s a despotic regime whose dictator has been completely discredited by his own people,” he declared.
Obama, who has already visited Muslim but secular Turkey, may want to reassure traditional U.S. Arab allies, wary of his overtures to Iran, that they are still valued — he now plans to visit Saudi Arabia a day before he goes to Cairo.
Nevertheless, Obama has a chance to transform Arab images of the United States, said Safa, the Lebanese analyst.
“There is a lot of hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be a change in Washington,” he said. “For him to deliver such a speech from an Arab Muslim capital is a great gesture. If the content goes with it, Arab public opinion will start to turn.”
Additional reporting by Razak Ahmad in Kuala Lumpur, Sayed Salahuddin and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Sunanda Creagh in Jakarta, Khaled Oweis in Damascus, Ulf Laessing in Riyadh and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah