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29 January, 2009

Obama charms Arabs on TV

News analysis
New America Media

Editor’s Note: President Obama’s first interview after his inauguration was with the Arab channel Al Arabiya. Arab media monitor Jalal Ghazi says he charmed the crew and the audience.

While sipping from a small plastic bottle of water and with a slight smile, Obama looks at the thrilled Al Arabiya crew who just scored the interview of a lifetime and says, “If I’m not mistaken, this is the first interview with a foreign correspondent. Is this not?” This short clip, which was not part of Obama’s formal interview, was played many times on Al Arabiya.

Of course, this reflects Al Arabiya’s pride. Obama chose the Arab television channel for his first interview since his inauguration. However, this is not the only surprise - equally important is the president’s sensitivity and humility. That impressed not only the Al Arabiya crew, who humorously and joyfully talked again and again about their interactions with Obama before and after the interview, but also Arabs and Muslims in general.

The biggest revelation was Obama’s interaction with Muna Al Shaqiqi, one of the Al Arabiya reporters who was helping with the cameras. She told Al Arabiya, “Usually when we interview American officials, we ask for the American flag. This time, however, they told us, 'We do not want to use flag.' They said they want this interview to be casual; they did not want it to be official.” Al Shaqiqi added, “They wanted Obama to speak directly to the Arab world. They did not want him to look stiff.”

Al Shaqiqi also told Al Arabiya that she had to do Obama’s make-up since there was no one else to do it. She said, “Five minutes after we were told to come to do the interview, we received another call from the White House and we were told to bring a make-up artist, but since we did not have any, we decided that I should do it.”

She continued, “As I was putting the make-up on Obama’s face, I told him that I'd come to operate one of the cameras and that I don’t usually do make-up.” Obama jokingly told Al Shaqiqi that if he looked funny, he would blame her.”

Al Shaqiqi explained that these interactions helped her understand why people like Obama. “Obama did not speak with Arab televisions during the election campaign," she said. "We have followed him to a number of states and we have tried many ways to talk to him, but he would not talk to us. Now we realize that he was just waiting for the right time.”

She was not the only person who was moved by Obama’s personality.

Hisham Melhem, the Al Arabiya bureau chief who conducted the interview, told Al Arabiya that Obama made “a very beautiful gesture” to his daughter. Melhem said, “Once I told Obama that my daughter had volunteered in his campaign, he asked his aide for a White House card and he wrote on it, ‘Thank you Nadia for your support. Always have big dreams.’”

Obama’s humanity, which the Al Arabiya crew experienced first hand, also came across in his carefully chosen words.

Sad al-Deen al-Yaieb, the spokesman for the Conference of the Islamic Organization, which represents 58 Muslims countries, said that his organization had sent Obama an open letter that was published in the New York Times on the day of his inauguration. The letter, which took up half a page, called on Obama to open “a new page of partnership with the Muslim world.”

Al Taieb told Al Arabiya, “Obama’s interview shows that the letter, which was on behalf of the Muslim world, had a positive effect on him.” He continued, “Obama said that he wants to establish a new partnership with the Muslim world, which were the exact same words used in the letter.”

Al Taieb added, “The interview was a sufficient response to the open letter. It shows he cares a great deal about this subject matter.”

Dr. Omar Hamzawi from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes Obama’s decision to do his first interview with an Arab television channel is a very effective way to address the Muslim and Arab worlds -- especially when it is accompanied by real steps to change U.S. foreign policy. He said, “Obama emphasized that the U.S. forces will withdraw from Iraq, and reiterated that Guantanamo Bay will be closed.”

Al Hamzawi also praised Obama’s emphasis on opening a dialogue. He said that the Bush administration failed to listen to both allies and so-called enemy states. Obama however, sent his newly-appointed envoy the Middle East, George Mitchell, to listen to conflicting parties in the region.

He also praised Obama for being sensitive in his choice of words. Obama, for example, does not use terms like "Islamic fundamentalism" or "Muslim extremists."

Probably the most important aspect of Obama for Muslims and Arabs was his admission that some of his family members were Muslim.

During his campaign, Obama’s Muslim connections were closely scrutinized, with some implying that he was a secret Muslim. Obama used to deny these false accusations by stressing that he was not a Muslim. But he usually left it at that. Now, he says, his job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world and that the language we use has to be a language of respect. “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” he added.

Ironically, the fact that Obama has succeeded despite the persistent attacks on his Muslim links will ultimately help him build bridges of understanding with the Muslim world. He is the first man in the White House to know first-hand what it is like to be discriminated against for being African American, and for having a Muslim father and an Arabic name. Of course, the fact that he is in the White House speaks volumes about the new America.

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