Obama wins, Muslims divided

Nov. 12, 2008
Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the seventh-century figure central to Shi'ite Islam, is said 
to have predicted when the world will end, columnist Amir Taheri points out. A 
"tall black man" commanding "the strongest army on earth" will take power "in 
the west." He will carry "a clear sign" from the third imam, Hussein. Ali says 
of the tall black man: "Shi'ites should have no doubt that he is with us." 

Barack Hussein in Arabic means "the blessing of Hussein." In Persian, Obama 
translates as "He [is] with us." Thus does the name of the presumptive American 
president-elect, when combined with his physical attributes and geography, 
suggest that the End of Times is nigh - precisely what Iranian president 
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been predicting. 

Back down on earth, the Muslim reaction to Obama's victory is more mixed than 
one might expect. 

American Islamists are delighted; an umbrella group, the American Muslim 
Taskforce on Civil Rights and Election, opined that, with Obama's election, 
"Our nation has... risen to new majestic heights." Siraj Wahhaj, Al-Hajj Talib 
Abdur Rashid, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public 
Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of 
North America, and the Muslim Alliance in North America responded with similar 

Hamas, and Islamist movements in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, India, Indonesia and the 
Philippines delighted in Obama's election. Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch 
generalizes that jihadists and Islamic supremacists worldwide showed "unalloyed 
joy." The New York Times finds public reaction in the Middle East mostly 
"euphoric." John Esposito of Georgetown University emphasizes the Muslim 
world's welcome to Obama as an "internationalist president." 

But plenty of other Muslims have other views. Writing in Canada's Edmonton Sun, 
Salim Mansur found John McCain the "more worthy candidate." Yusif al-Qaradawi, 
the Al-Jazeera sheikh, endorsed McCain for opposite reasons: "This is because I 
prefer the obvious enemy who does not hypocritically [conceal] his hostility 
toward you... to the enemy who wears a mask [of friendliness]." Al-Qaradawi 
also argued that twice as many Iraqis died during Bill Clinton's two 
administrations than during George W. Bush's. 

FOR TACTICAL reasons, the influential Sunni sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi wanted 
John McCain to win. 

Iran's hardliners also favored a McCain victory (according to Iran's former 
Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi) "because they benefit more from enmity with 
the US, which allows them to rally the Islamic world behind their policies and 
at the same time suppress dissent at home." The Taliban took note of Obama's 
election promise to increase US troops in Afghanistan, warning that, should he 
fulfill this plan, "jihad and resistance will be continued." 

Iraqis are intensively divided about Obama's plan quickly to withdraw US troops 
from their country. That plan, plus promises to end US dependence on Middle 
East oil and to negotiate with Iranian leaders, rattled the leaders of Saudi 
Arabia and other Persian Gulf governments. 

Some commentators argue that Obama cannot make a real difference; an Iranian 
newspaper declares him unable to alter a system "established by capitalists, 
Zionists, and racists." Predictably, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Obama's 
chief of staff confirmed Palestinian perceptions of an omnipotent Israel lobby. 
A commentator in the United Arab Emirates went further, predicting Obama's 
replication of Jimmy Carter's trajectory of flamboyant emergence, failure in 
the Middle East, and electoral defeat. 

IN ALL, these mixed reactions from Muslims suggest puzzlement at the prospect 
of a US president of Islamic origins who promises "change," yet whose foreign 
policy may buckle under the constraints of his office. In other words, Muslims 
confront the same question mark hanging over Obama as everyone else: 

Never before have Americans voted into the White House a person so unknown and 
enigmatic. Emerging from a hard-left background, he ran, especially in the 
general election, mostly as a center-left candidate. Which of these positions 
will he adopt as president? More precisely, where along the spectrum from hard- 
to center-left will he land? 

Looking at the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, will Obama's policies 
reflect Rashid Khalidi, the ex-PLO flak he befriended in the 1990s, or Dennis 
Ross, his recent campaign adviser and member of my board of editors? No one can 
yet say. 

Still, one can predict. Should Obama return to his hard left roots, Muslim 
euphoria will largely continue. Should he seek to make his presidency a success 
by moving to the center-left, many - but hardly all - Muslims will experience 
severe disillusionment. 

The writer is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished 
visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2008 by 
Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

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