A recent (10 May 2009) Ipsos Poll told us that the people of the UAE and the Arab world like President Obama and that our appreciation for him outstrips that which is expressed by his people of the nation in which he was elected.
Why We Like Obama
He looks like us. He is black like most people in the Arab world.
He understands us. He has African roots through his father. He is internationally travelled and is aware of our cultures and our part of the world.
He has humble beginnings and has experienced adversity. He does not owe his power and position to family connections or fortune.
He sounds like one of us. Barack comes from baraka meaning blessed in Arabic, a word that is chanted daily in the Koranic readings. Hussein is a Muslim name and Obama sounds like an Arab name much more than Bush, Clinton or Reagan.
He is a brother of the faith? Despite Barack Obama identifying as a Christian who is currently looking around Washington DC for a church where his family can worship, there is a widespread belief in the UAE and the rest of the Arab world that he is a Muslim. The logic is simple: In Arab culture and according to Islamic law, if Barack’s father is a Muslim, Barack is a Muslim and once a Muslim, always a Muslim.
He exudes optimism. Obama is creating optimism among people in the Arab world who for a long time have held negative attitudes toward the country of which he is President.
He is positive. Arabs think the new US President will have a positive effect on their country (the survey was conducted in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan).
He listens. The visit of Barack and Michelle Obama to Europe to visit the Queen of England and the leaders of the European nations was a high point in Obama’s first 100 days. The refreshingly new tone from the US President was summed up in his statement: “I’ve come to listen, not to lecture.” Middle Eastern countries are looking to more of this listening leader when Obama visits Egypt in June 2009.
He is magnanimous. His much documented decision to grant one of his major leadership positions to his rival, Hilary Clinton, is testimony to his big-heartedness. But ponder this smaller and more recent expression of this rare quality: When a storm brewed over the decision by the Arizona State University not to grant President Obama an honorary degree, because ‘his most significant work was in the future’, he defused the issue. In his Commencement Speech (13 May 2009) he not only called this a ‘storm in a tea cup’, but his agreement with the ASU statement became the major theme of his address. He said:
“In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one's life has been led - and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”
“And I want to say to you today, graduates, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone, one that you and your families are rightfully proud of, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Your body of work is yet to come….”
Arabs will be hoping that Obama’s bridge-building spirit will flow across their world, especially in the Israeli/Palestinian divide.
He is a worker for peace. Arab and Muslim nations are heartened by Obama’s decisions to withdraw from Iraq, to close Guantanamo Bay and to put an end to harsh interrogation methods and torture that have been deployed towards detainees in the GB detention facility and some prisoners in Iraq. These are all important decisions that make for peace.
Oscar Romero, the San Salvadorian leader who lifted the veil on human rights abuses, recognized peace as a much richer and deeper work than winning a war, when he made this statement (I have substituted the Arabic word for ‘peace’ سلام to make Romero’s statement speak more directly into our scene here in the Emirates and the Arab world):
Salaam is not the product of terror or fear.
Salaam is not the silence of cemeteries.
Salaam is not the silent result of violent repression.
Salaam is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Salaam is dynamism.
Salaam is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
In it each one has a place in this beautiful family…
Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, E-Book, 8 January 1978, 42.
More on Barack Obama
Obama’s Commencement Address at ASU, SFS.
Story for the US President about Gatekeepers, SFS.
Barack Obama and the Empathetic Person, SFS.
Ben Okri on Obama the Speechmaker, SFS.
Obama Tells Story of Anne Nixon Cooper, SFS.
Obama’s Speech on Election Night, SFS.
Obama’s Tribute to His Grandmother, SFS.
Obama on the Cost and Struggle of Change, SFS.
Obama’s Tribute to His Grandmother (from book), SFS.
Obama Expresses Debt to Mother and His Humble Beginnings, SFS.
Al Gore on Obama’s Youthfulness, SFS.
Reviewing The Audacity of Hope, RBM.
Reviewing Dreams of My Father, RBM.
Leave a Comment if you wish to state other reasons for Arab affection towards President Obama or if you have differing views.
Dr Geoff Pound
Contact by email at geoffpound[@]gmail.com or on Facebook
Image: President Barack Obama.