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Obama misses his ‘tear down this wall’ moment

Friday 5 June 2009, by siawi

The Ottawa Citizen, June 4, 2009

Obama misses his ‘tear down this wall’ moment

by Tarek Fatah

Whether we like Barack Obama or not, few would disagree the United States is today being led by a man like no other in its history. And being black is not the reason why. It is the uncharted waters the American president has chosen to traverse that make his journey so captivating, much more than his mastery of oratory. His speech in Cairo yesterday was a milestone no other American president could have or would have cared or dared to reach.

Abu Natasha (father of Natasha), as Obama would be known to Arabs, has made a seemingly easy pitch at the Muslim world that could very well turn out to be a nasty curve ball that few of the dictators in the region would be able to read. Only time will tell if Obama’s pitch is hit out of the park by the guile of the wicked batsmen who have occupied their positions for decades, or whether he scores a strikeout.

As a secular Muslim admirer of Obama who has one degree of separation from him (we have a common friend) I got up early to listen to the much-anticipated speech from Cairo.

I was uneasy about his choice of location, even as I wanted to give the man the benefit of doubt. After all, Obama was supposed to address the Muslim world, not the Arab world. Some may argue that questioning his choice for the venue is nitpicking, but where he said what he said is hugely significant as well.

Some observers argued that, in rejecting venues like Jakarta, Karachi, Dar es Salaam, Dakar, Dhaka or Kuala Lumpur, President Obama had inadvertently bought into the doctrine that divides the Muslim world between the so-called authentic Muslims of the Arab countries and the B-grade Muslims that live elsewhere.

For centuries, non-Arab African Muslims like the Kenyan Barack Obama Sr., have been deemed of lesser worth and referred to in the Arab world as “Ya Abdi” (O my slave) while other non-Arab Muslims have been slapped with the derogatory title of Mawalis, the manifestation of which is seen today in Darfur and Dubai.

But perhaps there was a method in Obama’s madness. Perhaps he would walk into the heart of dictatorship and racism to make his “tear down this wall” call as Ronald Reagan did in Berlin in 1987. I waited, but that moment never came.

At one stage when Obama made reference to Bangladesh and Indonesia and Turkey, my heart fluttered in anticipation. Yes, I thought. He is now going to make the argument directly to the men who rule the Arab world with an iron fist. Talking about women’s rights, Obama said: “In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.”

Bravo, I thought. I hoped his next sentence would say: Now is the time for Arab countries to take a lead from their non-Arab co-religionists and learn how to bring women to the forefront of politics and leadership.

But he didn’t.

Instead his next line was almost an apology for why the Arab world is so hostile to women’s equality. Obama said, “Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.”

To me he sounded as if he was saying to the kings and generals: Do not despair, we Americans too are not without blame as far as women’s rights are concerned.

Of course America has miles to go before it rests, but to even hint of a parallel between the challenges facing women in America and the appalling condition of women in the Arab world is downright dangerous and only feeds the mullahs who will say, “Look, even America discriminates against women — Obama said it.”

To give Obama credit, he did lay down the line when it comes to the violent jihadis of al-Qaeda.

My hat’s off to him for making the journey and extending a hand, but in doing so he has risked validating the very soft jihadis of the Muslim Brotherhood who have forced the hijab on the heads of Muslim women, and made them think that not wearing one is like walking naked in public.

I salute him for standing up for Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab, but where was his condemnation of the punishment of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and Iran for daring to show their curls?

Obama has a few years to go before his legacy is written. In dealing with Muslims I hope he does not swallow the Islamist definitions of Islam that seem to be slowly creeping into his administration’s narrative and outreach. I would hope that when he engages with Muslims, he is not too enamoured by those who define their faith by the number of bangs that are hidden under a hijab, but also by the Muslims whom he befriended as a young man; such as his buddy, the Pakistan-American Mohammed Hasan Chandoo.

Dear Abu Natasha,

As another Abu Natasha from just north of the border, please do not impose on us Muslims what the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to impose, but remember what you desire for your Christian daughter Natasha, I demand for my Muslim daughter Natasha.

Khuda Hafiz.

Tarek Fatah is the author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of
an Islamic State. E-mail: tarekfatah (at)

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