Let me begin with a confession: I sat through the live coverage of President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world on Thursday with rapt attention and felt convinced of his sincerity and good intentions. This, without any doubt, is a great initiative. Yes, considering the raw winds that are blowing across our troubled lands, the promise of ‘a new beginning’ is potentially breakable. But the spectacle of an American president saying what Obama did in Cairo was in itself a source of considerable delight.
So, what happens now? The point that one speech cannot make the difference has repeatedly been stressed. As it is, the wars that are fought in the minds of human beings do linger until some kind of a paradigm shift manifests itself with the acceptance of new realities and new ideas. What Obama’s remarkable speech prompts us to do in Pakistan is to carefully take stock of our relationship with and feelings towards not just the United States of America but also the phenomenon of Islamic militancy in all its manifestations.
This exercise would naturally confront us with some difficult questions about our national sense of direction and the challenges that have paved the way for our survival. It may be instructive, in this context, to review the entire exercise that was conducted by the Obama administration in formulating the ideas and the messages that are contained in Thursday’s historic oration. Indeed, an American commentator may even write a book on the making of this speech – and of Obama’s new policy towards Muslim countries. A separate study could review the massive operation that was conducted to promote and disseminate the speech.
We should also be mindful of the fact that Obama must represent America’s national interests as well as its public opinion. A popularly elected leader does not enjoy the power of a dictator or a military ruler to arbitrarily execute a U-turn in his country’s policies. Yes, the electoral victory of Obama is a dazzling illustration of how a nation can rise to a higher level of maturity and fairness through democracy. Still, Obama is the legitimate personification of America and there are bound to be limits to how far he can satisfy the expectations of the different sections of opinion in the Muslim world, particularly when America is a country that many Muslims love to hate.
Now, it is all right for the Muslim world to expect America to erase the general perception that its ‘war against terror’ is a reflection of some kind of Islamophobia, though Obama has expunged this term from America’s diplomatic lexicon and there was no mention of the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’ in his Cairo speech. But what does the Muslim world, or any specific Muslim country, propose to do to improve the global image of Muslims?
After all, when Obama announces his resolve to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, the Muslims not only have to assess the validity of this resolution but to also carefully examine their thoughts and feelings on what kinds of relations they want to foster with the United States. This issue is of particular significance for us in Pakistan. And its complexity is deepened by the burden of history that we carry. What is incontrovertible is that the American influence impinges on so many aspects of our national and foreign affairs.
This means that we must do some serious thinking on how we want this relationship to evolve. The irony here is that at the popular level, there is great distrust about American intentions and designs in this region. And such perceptions become hard to change even when the dynamics of a situation is changing at a quick pace. I say this not just with reference to the new language that Obama has adopted to talk to the Muslims, raising high expectations for policy action. Our own military action in Malakand and the humanitarian crisis that this has spawned is bound to have an impact on what we think of the Taliban and on America’s role in our emerging crises.
This was a critical time for US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to visit Pakistan. He announced increased US assistance for the internally displaced people and also visited a camp. On Friday, concluding his three-day visit, he said that the Pakistan armed forces have “turned the corner” in the present military offensive, successfully clearing several areas. Holbrooke repeatedly underlined the dominant US share in humanitarian assistance given to Pakistan and seemed anxious for its appreciation by the people of Pakistan.
If we have genuinely turned the corner in our campaign against the Taliban, or militants, or ‘violent extremists’, many things are likely to change. However, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have continued. Friday’s suicide attack on a Dir mosque, just before the afternoon prayers, is the latest reminder of the immense potential for violence in our society. Reports said that twelve children were included in the large number of fatalities – between 30 and 40.
Coming back to Obama’s Cairo speech, we will need some early evidence of how America now interacts with Muslim countries to reduce tensions and promote peace, particularly in the Middle-East. After ‘violent extremism’ that Obama chose as his first issue to confront, he gave priority to “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world”. It was refreshing to see an American president asserting that the Palestinians “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland”. He added: “So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable”.
It is not possible in this space to review the entire speech that had quotations from the holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths. The essential message was that we should forget the past and try to understand an opposing view. This will be very difficult for us to do, given our emotional and intellectual proclivities. For instance, revenge is the overriding instinct in our tribal culture that some of us want to romanticize. Obama also spoke about women’s rights and in this area, too, we have serious problems to contend with.
Finally – and irrespective of whether we want to look at Obama’s address as a point of reference or not – we must think of making a new beginning in Pakistan. What seems necessary, to quote Obama, is “that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors”. Ah, but that would demand peace and tolerance and respect for dissident views. America should have nothing to do with how we build such an environment. And no amount of financial assistance or military hardware can help us in this struggle for Pakistan’s survival.