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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 01:27 pm

Muslims, the Americans are not your enemy

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President Barack Obama interviewed by Dubai-based Al-Arabiya.

As he dispatched former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, his new special envoy for Middle East peace, to the region, President Obama gave his first television interview on Monday to the Dubai-based satellite network al-Arabiya. Obama chose the vehicle of a network that is widely viewed in the Arab and Muslim world to make a break in tone — and possibly policy — from his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose unrelenting “war on terror” rhetoric left little room for the development of trust.

In particular, the new president sought to paint a picture of himself, and his administration, as being committed to diplomacy and the pursuit of an agreement between Israel and Palestine.

Speaking of having “Muslim members of my family,” and of having lived in a Muslim country (Indonesia), Obama said that America is “ready to initiate a new partnership (with Arab states and the Muslim world) based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.”

“All too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved,” Obama told al-Arabiya. “So let’s listen. He’s [George Mitchell] going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.”

Obama went out of his way to emphasize that he was willing to listen — and to talk — in hopes of achieving better relations between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world. The president left no doubt that he recognizes the requirement that to achieve that end he must make the United States a more serious proponent of efforts to forge a lasting and just peace between Israel and Palestine. With only a tense ceasefire capping the crisis in Gaza, Obama promised immediate engagement with the Middle East peace process — marking a departure from the disengaged approach of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Whether that departure is stylistic, or something more, remains to be seen. But there was no question that Obama’s language was dramatically different from that employed by the man he succeeded in the White House.

“Israel is a strong ally of the United States,” Obama said. “They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”

More specifically, Obama said, “I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state — I’m not going to put a time frame on it — that is contiguous, that allows freedom of movement for its people, that allows for trade with other countries, that allows the creation of businesses and commerce so that people have a better life. And, look, I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved.”

“Now,” Obama explained, “my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy.”

John Nichols is Washington

correspondent for The Nation magazine.

The article is repreinted with permission.

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