The extent of the Arab world’s disinterest in American policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan is notable not as much for the alleged hypocrisy it could expose between President Obama’s speech and American policy, but rather in the crude disjunct between the interest and influence of Arab issues on the Pakistani psyche
On June 4, 2009, at around 1:10 pm local time, President Barack Hussein Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University in Egypt. The speech, much touted for days, even months, hit all the right notes.
In the never-ending series of analyses that ensued, expected portions of the speech were praised. Nearly every constituency tuned to the speech, from the Israelis to the Egyptians, was able to find something pleasing. A spokesman from the Israeli government hoped the speech would mark the “opening of a new era”; people on the Arab street praised the scolding President Obama delivered against the perpetuation of Israeli settlements in occupied territories.
The critiques of the speech were just as predictable. Numerous commentators, both in the United States and in the Middle East, emphasised that rhetoric alone cannot overcome the chasms created by war. Nearly all emphasised the importance of following beautiful words with beautiful deeds. Some warned that as speeches go, the President of the United States would be best served to make this his last “speech” before following it up with the much-awaited changes in US policy that the world really awaits.
Groups like Hezbollah, the British Hizb-ut Tahrir and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei all insisted that “change and a new image cannot be created by paying lip-service to mottos”.
While the speech itself was careful to include Pakistanis in the “Muslim” world, it was interesting to see the responses of several Middle Eastern anchors and commentators. Not only did many insist on focusing on the “Arab” portions of the American president’s speech but several insisted that the speech was in fact targeted exclusively to Middle Eastern Arabs.
One such commentator, Shibli Telhami, who appeared both on American and Middle Eastern networks, openly said that Arabs were not too interested in what was happening in Pakistan, and that the issue of Middle East peace was far more central.
This point, emphasised repeatedly in the coverage of Obama’s speech by Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyya and other networks, should be worthy of note to Pakistanis. Not only did several Arab anchors refuse to acknowledge the refugee crisis and civil war in Pakistan as a pressing issue facing the Muslim world, they quite indifferently discarded it as something inconsequential to the Arab world.
This undoubtedly callous disregard with which Arabs view the events taking place in Pakistan is emphasised not simply in their response to President Obama’s speech, but also in the failure of most Arab nations to respond to the refugee crisis taking place in the nation. Unlike recent fundraising drives around the world for the people of Gaza following the harrowing Israeli offensive earlier this year, there is paltry attention to the plight of refugees languishing in camps in Pakistan. Unlike the millions of dollars collected by Islamic charities for the people of Gaza and the money allotted by transnational Muslim organisations such as the OIC for the crisis in Palestine, the crisis in Pakistan has failed to engage the empathy of the Muslim world.
So while much of the “Arab street” focused on the need for Obama to follow his speech with actions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, few or rather none at all mentioned the necessity of similar follow-ups in the Pakistani context.
Even fewer considered the adequacy of the additional 200 million dollars that were announced as additional allotments toward internally displaced persons in Pakistan. There was no talk of whether American policies of empowering local tribal leaders to fight the Taliban in various parts of Afghanistan would facilitate Obama’s avowed project of either upholding human rights or improving Muslim women’s access to education.
The extent of the Arab world’s disinterest in American policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan is notable not as much for the alleged hypocrisy it could expose between President Obama’s speech and American policy, but rather in the crude disjunct between the interest and influence of Arab issues on the Pakistani psyche.
The centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Islamist politics in Pakistan does not need to be recounted. Pakistanis have and continue to donate millions of rupees for their Palestinian brothers suffering under Israeli occupation. Similarly, the plight of Iraqis that have now suffered for nearly a decade the ravages of a misguided war has played a crucial role in fuelling anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
So complete is the Pakistani obsession with the plight of their Arab brothers that in reacting to the speech itself, Pakistani politicians like Imran Khan focused less on the mess at hand and more on the necessity and ability of President Obama to answer to his promises regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
As mentioned before, there were few surprises in President Obama’s speech. The rhetorical overtures he made are undoubtedly both necessary and welcome by all those around the world ushered into the dregs of despair by his predecessor. Clues to the future of America and the Muslim world, however, lie less in the speech and more in the reaction to it. If Obama’s advisors assess the reactions to the speech, they will be able to isolate the price of picking fights with the Muslim world.
In noting the attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis not only by the Arab world but also by Muslims in South Asia, they would note, for example, its central place in the Obama administration’s avowed project of befriending the Muslim world.
At the same time, the inability of Arab Muslims to extend their sympathy to (or open their pocketbooks for) their fellow Muslims in Pakistan should provide some clues to the Obama administration regarding which Muslims may be more easily ignored. Since the beginning of the Taliban onslaught in Pakistan, not a single emergency conference has been organised by any group of Muslim countries. Neither the Gulf States nor the benevolent Saudis have used any mentionable sum of their oil largesse to aid the people of Malakand languishing in camps.
Given the ease with which a tragedy affecting millions of Pakistanis has been ignored by those Arab Muslims so venerated as brothers in faith by Pakistanis, the recipe for which Muslims must be appeased first must now be apparent to the world and undoubtedly to the United States.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Reproduced by permission of the author and DT