Barack Obama was the only U.S. president who managed to gain the love of Arabs and Muslims during the toughest of times. He launched his presidency in our region in a friendly manner that we were unfamiliar with. He delivered two speeches from the heart of two of the most important historical Muslim cities, Cairo and Istanbul.
His speech at Cairo University was a magnificent piece of literature in which he spoke about his vision of Islam and peace, his experience in Jakarta, and his partially African and Muslim descent. He gained the love of many from among the 300 million Arabs who are usually angry at the United States. Obama, the 44th US president, was undoubtedly the first to enter Muslims’ hearts.
His biggest mistake relates to Syria. No one understands why the president of the strongest country in the world refuses to help people of whom half a million have been slaughtered. In his interview with The Atlantic magazine, we feel that he has probably changed a lot of his views. At the start of his presidency he appeared to us as warm, enthusiastic and wanting to communicate. In this interview, however, we feel he is cold, frustrated and withdrawn.
At the start of his presidency, Obama appeared to us as warm, enthusiastic and wanting to communicate. In this interview, however, we feel he is cold, frustrated and withdrawn.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
The angry punches Obama directed at his friends included Saudi Arabia. Many of Riyadh’s rivals celebrated his criticism of the kingdom, which has the longest stable relationship with the United States in the region.
The interview revealed that Obama “developed” his understanding of extremism and terrorism, as his opinions now are opposite to what we heard from him at Cairo University. Back then, he proposed cooperation to fight extremism. He is now blaming Saudi Arabia and cooperating with Iran, about which he thinks he has discovered good traits that his predecessors had not.
Extremism is neither a state nor a religion, but a general phenomenon. Blaming others and making accusations does not eliminate it. Extremism is a serious ideological virus that has spread in Muslim societies, including those in the West. Obama said he lived part of his life in Indonesia, where the majority were tolerant Muslims, but when he visited it later he found extremism due to Saudi intellect.
Extremism in modern Islam is complicated. In the early 1980s it appeared in Saudi Arabia and its surroundings, but this coincided with the extremist 1979 revolution in Iran, and the launching of a war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the name of Islam with Saudi-US-Pakistani partnership. Religion was politicized at that time, but before then I did not know or hear of any mosque in my city Riyadh that preached about politics.
Clerics did not make TV appearances to discuss world affairs. There were no charities or youth camps run by people with certain religious or other affiliations. What was common back then was the traditional Saudi Salafi Sunni concept that was well-known for being conservative regarding social affairs, but left politics to relevant figures.
The 1979 revolution in Iran, and the subsequent adoption of violent jihad, produced extremism as we see it today. These new Iranian rulers were the first to use religion in managing foreign affairs. Obama complains of extremism that reached Jakarta, but we too complain of it in Riyadh, Cairo and Casablanca. Riyadh did not used to be like that. I lived there during the same period that Obama lived in Jakarta.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Mar. 18, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.