Crossposted at Huffington Post.
As I surf the Internet and visit my favorite blogs, I read that many people are saying “why didn’t Barack Obama say this” or “why didn’t Obama say that?” Many prominent Mideast experts and bloggers are expressing disappointment in Obama. They say his address to the Arab-Muslim world was “status quo patronizing,” “nothing but empty words,” “lip service,” and much more. Jack Shaheen, one of the world’s foremost authority on media images of Arabs and Muslims, said he was duly impressed with Obama’s address to the Muslim world.
Shaheen is the author of the groundbreaking work “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” His second book “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs after 9/11,” was recently named the 2008 “Forward Magazine” social sciences book of the year. Shaheen says Obama’s message set a positive tone for a sincere dialog about Muslims and Arabs myths and realities. He believes Obama “brought these issues in a very candid and articulate manner to the forefront and he is committed from the get-go.”
I interviewed Shaheen shortly before the 2008 general election for Off the Bus and I checked back in to find out what he thought of Obama’s address to the Arab-Muslim world.
So what are your initial impressions of Obama’s address to the Arab-Muslim world?
Jack Shaheen: The fact that an American president went to an Arab country and spoke not only young people throughout the Arab-Muslim world and Arab and Israeli leaders, but to world leaders and young people worldwide. I say this primarily because it was a message of peace. His words were designed to make people realize and understand that violence, the occupation of another people, and using religion as a weapon continue to go on. But it needs to stop and we as human beings have a responsibility to shatter the myth and cease the hate rhetoric that we have.
We need to begin a dialog to go forward. We know that will not be an easy task, but [Obama] has set a tone. I think it always begins at the top and hopefully other world leaders and young people will take to heart his message.
We also need to understand that individuals must act on it. We have to follow through as a country [to achieve peace]. We have to make certain that settlements no longer exist and that Israel brings down the wall. Obama did not say that, but should have. He could have compared that to the Berlin Wall. But I think given the hate and the mistrust that exists in Israel – which is not being reported [in the U.S.], – I think he soft-pedaled that. Which I can understand.
I also believe that for more than a century, we have in one way or the other demonized Islam and Muslims. This has had a telling effect. Many Arabs and Muslims are afraid to come to the U.S. because of harassment at airports, taken off a plane, or deported because you were Muslim or Arab. Obama didn’t mention that. But we knew instinctively that was what he was talking about. Without saying it, Obama was telling the world ‘it’s OK to be a Muslim. The Muslims are like Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc.’
Now we know a lot of people are not going to shed their prejudices over time about Islam and Muslims. But again, it’s coming from the top and that will filter down. I think Obama is not going to let this go. He’s not going to stop with this kind of rhetoric. He will continue to quote and cite the similarities between the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah. Of course if I were writing the speech, I would’ve advised him that the Virgin Mary is mentioned more often in the Koran than she is in the Bible!
Obama was trying to do several things [in his address]. He was trying to shatter crude stereotypes Americans have about Arabs and Muslims, help young Arabs and Muslims and Arab leaders shatter their misperceptions of Americans and Israelis, and help Israelis shatter the crude stereotypes they may have of Arabs and Muslims. I think [Obama’s address] brought these issues to the forefront. He’s not waiting until the last few months of his presidency to try and bring about peace. Obama’s committed from the get-go. This is the first.
It reminded me – in some ways – when former president Richard Nixon speech when he went to China. Americans had all these images of China as “dirty commies.” Nixon goes to China and almost over night, our perceptions and policies began to change. They’re not going to change that fast, but we’ve been here before. We were able to turn this around with China. I see no reason why we can’t do this.
My problem was that Obama spoke out against Palestinian violence, but not against Israeli violence. He said nothing about the Israeli aggression in Gaza from late December and early January.
I think he did all the things he could have done. But look how many times Obama mentioned Palestine? He also mentioned the occupation. All of us have our particular biases. We can always find things and say ‘why didn’t he say this or why didn’t he say that?’ But by and large, it was a speech to bring people together. I think Obama treaded very carefully so much as to not to offend countries who will may step forward and negotiate with the U.S.
First of all, we have to take into consideration that this is the key first step. Obama set the correct tone for the beginning of the peace process. No president before has ever done this. Secondly, he did not speak to the Muslim world, he spoke to Muslims throughout the world. This speech did not only take into consideration Arab Muslims – the ones who are most demonized – but other Muslims from all over the world. No matter where they are, Muslims are persecuted and looked down upon because of their faith. I think this president deserves a tremendous amount of credit for reaching out.
It’s human nature to look at a speech like this and say ‘well, had I been delivering this speech, this is what I would’ve said.’ I’m sure Robert Fisk would’ve come down much harder on the Israelis and Tom Friedman would have come down much harder on the Arabs, etc., etc., etc. From that particular point of view, I think there’s enough in it to say it was fair and balanced.
I was particularly impressed by the reception [Obama received] at Cairo University. I don’t think Obama would’ve gotten that kind of reception in Israel. There weren’t cue cards saying “applaud here” or “cheer there.” Those who attended were sincerely moved by Obama’s speech and his commitment. I think that’s a very strong indication of the seeds Obama has planted. Those seeds will develop and grow as long as he does not waver from his commitment.
In terms of your area of expertise (media criticism), what issues are not being covered about Obama’s address?
I think the mainstream media have basically said that the Israelis didn’t mind it that much. I don’t think that’s true. There’s been a lot of blogging on how Arabs have reacted, but not enough about how Israelis are reacting. I think we need to know that.
I also think what we haven’t followed up on crude stereotypes, how we perceive them, and how Arabs and Muslims perceive us.
I also think commonalities have to be addressed. If I were Larry King, I would have a rabbi, priest and an imam. I don’t think we can move forward on this until you shed these misconceptions that we’ve held for so many years.
I think we need to define what they are and how does Obama plan on changing the way Israelis look at Arabs, or the way we look at Arabs and Muslims and vice-versa. I think that’s the key and the major element. We should start with that.
How does Obama’s address reflect Americans’ perceptions and misperceptions of Arab politics and Arab-Muslim culture?
I think with Arab politics, Obama is talking about being more open and more responsive to citizens of different Arab countries. He does that by saying that political leaders have to be accountable for your people. He’s not calling for democracy. But he is calling for accountability. That’s extremely important.
In terms of Arab-Muslim culture, we need to have a summit. We need to have a dialog to shatter these myths and I think the dialog comes with media leaders and all the countries involved. It’s Hollywood, it’s the press, and it’s about what can be done so these crude stereotypes are not taken to an extreme. If we continue vilifying one another, peace will never happen.
So where do we go from here after Obama’s address?
I think we’ve learned that we have a leader who cares passionately about the human race, curtailing terrorism worldwide, and putting an end to an illegal occupation. He is a leader who has respect for all faiths; he has the vision to see the commonalities among the faiths; and he is a leader that respects their differences.
I see him as a fearless man and a champion of human rights. I see in Obama a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., only in many ways, he’s more universal. There are elements of King and Mahatma Ghandi in Obama. It’s all right there. You can see and feel his passion and his commitment to each and every person.