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Profile: Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem was a participant or observer in the following events:
President Obama and Hisham Melhem, during the interview. [Source: Al Arabiya / Time]President Obama gives his first interview after assuming the presidency to the Dubai-based satellite broadcaster Al Arabiya. He tells interviewer Hisham Melhem that Americans are not the enemy of the Muslim world, and wants Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations. [Al Arabiya, 1/27/2009] Melhem, Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau chief, originally believes he was slated to interview the newly named US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell (see January 22, 2009). Melhem believed there was some discussion among White House officials on whether it was the right time for Obama to grant an interview to the Arab media. The selection of Al Arabiya is deliberate, as that channel is considered more moderate and Western-friendly than, for example, Al Jazeera. [Time, 1/28/2009]
Intent to Reopen Talks between Israel, Palestinians - Obama intends to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and says the US will open up new talks by listening to the two sides instead of immediately issuing demands. “[W]hat I told Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating—in the past on some of these issues—and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response. Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.” The larger peace plan for the Middle East recently proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will play an important role in the negotiations, Obama says.
'A Language of Respect' - Language matters, Obama notes. “[M]y job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” he says. “[T]he language we use matters. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.”
Restoring Relations with the Muslim World - Melhem asks Obama about tensions between the US and the Islamic world, inflamed by demagogues and extremists on both sides. Obama says: “Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they [extremists]‘ve been using against me before I even took office… what that tells me is that 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.” Obama reminds Melhem, and the viewers, that he lived for a time in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, during his childhood. He learned through his experiences in Indonesia and other Muslim countries that everyone, regardless of differences in culture or faith, has similar hopes and aspirations. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy,” he says. “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.”
Dealing with Iran - Wrapping up the interview, Melhem asks if the US is prepared to “live with a nuclear Iran.” Obama responds: “I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.… Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past—none of these things have been helpful. But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.” [Al Arabiya, 1/27/2009]
Responses - In Pakistan, Obama’s interview is widely viewed, and receives what CNN calls “a generally positive response from analysts there.” Islamabad author and journalist Imtiaz Gul says, “It’s a good sign of an attempt to reconcile with the Muslim world, to say America wants to reach out to them and not to consider them as an enemy.” [CNN, 1/27/2009] Egyptian student Omar Youssef, who has joined in protests against the Israeli war in Gaza, says of Obama: “He’s a man of diplomacy and speaks well. Bush, Arab people hate him. But the world needs a man like Obama.” Another student, Ahmed Mahmoud, adds, “Maybe if he can solve the problem between white and black people in America, he can also solve the problem between Arab and Jewish people here.” [Time, 1/28/2009] Melhem, who has long criticized US policies towards the Middle East, later says he was touched by Obama’s conciliatory tone and references to his Muslim roots. “You can feel the authenticity about him,” he says. “The interview was his way of saying, ‘There is a new wind coming from Washington.’ Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush.” [Time, 1/29/2009] Al Arabiya General Manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed says: “What he did campaigning in the US he is trying to do in the Middle East, convincing people that he is on their side. He is telling Muslims that he is proud of his Muslim roots. This is being received positively.” And Jordanian news columnist Jamil Nimri writes, “The language of force, conceit, and threat has totally disappeared.” [Time, 1/28/2009] Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer disputes Obama’s implication that the Bush administration treated Islam with any disrespect, saying: “[S]omehow he is implying that somehow the Obama era is a break with the American past. Somehow it is undoing a disrespect of Islam that had somehow occurred under the previous administration.… We have no need to apologize. Extend a hand, yes, but to imply that there was a disrespect of Islam in the last administration, I think is unfair and fictional.” [Fox News, 1/28/2009]
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