By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Barack Obama gave his first formal TV interview as president yesterday, and it wasn't to one of the usual suspects. He sat down with Al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arabic language channel that mostly serves the Muslim world in the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. With an eye toward American-Muslim relations, the interview was significant on multiple fronts:
1. The symbolism of Obama granting his first official television interview to a network that primarily serves Muslims abroad. George W. Bush gave interviews to Arabic language news channels, including Al-Arabiya, but Obama making it his first signals a new American respect for the Muslim world.
2. Without specifying a location, Obama stood by his earlier vow to speak in the capital of a Muslim country in his first 100 days in office: "We're going to follow through on our commitment for me to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital."
3. Obama advertised familial ties to Islam: "I have Muslim members of my family." On the presidential campaign trail, his ties to the religion were treated as a big liability, with his campaign constantly battling false rumors that Obama is Muslim. It's fascinating to watch Obama finally exploit his familial ties to the religion as potential source of strength.
4. Obama drew a clear distinction between Islamic radicals and the ordinary Muslims, excoriating the radicals:
Their ideas are bankrupt. There's no actions that they've taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them. In my inauguration speech, I spoke about: You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed. And what they've been doing is destroying things. And over time, I think the Muslim world has recognized that that path is leading no place, except more death and destruction.
Obama is careful to couple his Muslim outreach with a "tough on terror" line.
5. Obama implied that the U.S. has made mistakes in dealing with the Muslim world without coming across as apologetic and reigns in expectations for American relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds by recognizing that important differences will remain:
My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.
But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well.