Juan Cole: Obama is the anti-Malcolm X





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

Ayman al-Zawahiri attacked Barack Obama in a video released on the internet on Tuesday. Fox News reprinted the whole transcript here. I'm a little bit confused by this step, since I thought the US networks had agreed under pressure from Bush only to carry excerpts from al-Qaeda, and the US elite has been deeply critical, to say the least, of Aljazeera for carrying 2-minute clips. (Of course, all this brouhaha is hypocritical, since Rupert Murdoch's satellite service in Asia carries both Aljazeera and Aljazeera English; Murdoch owns Fox News). Fox seems to be the only network carrying the full English text (which was provided by al-Sahab, the al-Qaeda video production company (see the videos below).

The headline in most comments on the video was that al-Zawahiri used a racist slur against Obama, calling him a"house Negro" and referring to the distinction Malcolm X made between pro-white slaves who lived next to the mansion, and the"field Negros" who toiled beneath the whip and hated their master.

In the video, al-Zawahiri does pointedly refer to Malcolm X's distinction. But he speaks in Arabic of"`abid al-bayt,""the house slave," and does not use the word"Negro" (which the al-Sahab translators are rendering 'zinji.') The connotations and implications are much the same, but it is not exact to say that al-Zawahiri used the phrase"house Negro" himself.

The Egyptian physician and mass murderer made a key error in his analysis, however, since if we were to take Malcolm X's parable seriously, Barack Obama would have to be assigned the role of the master.

In the past 50 years, the United States has, by dint of enormous daily ethical struggle, altered the dynamics of race. It is no longer the case that African-Americans only have a choice of serving under a white elite or rebelling against it. They can be senator or president in their own right. There is still a great deal of economic and educational inequality, and one election will not suddenly change that, but America's Apartheid days are gone. Al-Zawahiri, formed intellectually in the late 1960s, is stuck in a paradigm, of a worldwide revolution of people of color against the white global ruling class, which is nonsensical when Japan and China have the second and fourth largest economies, respectively, and when the United States has an African-American president.

Ironically 89 percent of the true heirs of Malcolm X, the contemporary American Muslim community, voted for Obama; and they had a 95 percent turnout, the highest in their history.

Al-Zawahiri celebrates what he sees as the US admission of defeat in Iraq (insofar as it has committed to leave by 2011). That al-Zawahiri can gloat about the withdrawal in this way underlines how foolish Bush and his cronies were to attempt to militarily occupy, over a period of several years, a major Arab Muslim country with a strong history of popular resistance to imperialism. Bush by his arrogance and ignorance granted this talking point to al-Qaeda.

Still, it has to be said that radical Sunni fundamentalism was never a majority tendency among Iraqi Sunnis, and appears to be spiralling down into insignificance. The real victor in Iraq is not al-Qaeda and its ideological soul mates, but rather the pro-Iranian Shiite government of Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Zawahiri viciously attacked Iran in his last video, and spoke darkly of an Iranian alliance with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So if Bush was defeated in Iraq, so was al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda (insofar as their ideological soul mates, the Sunni radical fundamentalists there, have been largely rolled back).

Al-Zawahiri complains about Barack Obama's warm feelings for Israel and his willingness to pray alongside Jews, characterizing that gesture as a declaration of enmity toward Muslims. But Egypt and Jordan are majority-Muslim and they have peace treaties with Israel; and 65 percent of American Muslims believe that a peace settlement can be reached with Israel that is also fair to the Palestinians. So the issue cannot be one of simply enmity toward Islam (are Egyptians and Jordanians self-hating Muslims?)

The terrorist mastermind is even more scathing toward Obama's hopes of talking to Iran and of sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan."That has failure written all over it," al-Zawahiri pronounced.

It is absolutely clear toward the end of the video that al-Zawahiri is petrified of Obama's popularity and is very afraid that he will be a game-changer in relations between the Muslim world and the United States. Hence his flailing around talking about house slaves, as though Obama were not (as of Jan. 20) himself the most powerful man in the world, catapulted into his position by nearly half of American whites (who voted for him in higher proportions than they did for Clinton and Kerry).

Al-Zawahiri has seen a lot of Muslim politics, and if he is this afraid of Obama, it is a sign that the new president has enormous potential to deploy soft power against al-Qaeda, and al-Zawahiri is running scared, trying to pretend it is still the 1960s, when it just isn't.

Hassan al-Subaihi argues that before the election, Arabs overwhelmingly supported Obama, but that his appointment of Israeli-American Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff has divided them into a number of camps, each with a different view of the new president. Ironically, he finds that Palestinian intellectuals are among the most realistic and yet positive about Obama. The least hopeful are the radical fundamentalists (e.g. Hamas) and the poorly educated.

Obama has the opportunity to be the most popular US president in the Middle East since Eisenhower. If he is wise, he will defeat al-Zawahiri not just by military means but by stealing away al-Zawahiri's own intended constituency. Obama is about building communities up; al-Zawahiri is about destroying them. If Obama can convince the Arab publics of this basic fact, he will win.

The Zawahiri video is subtitled in English:

The Zawahiri video, Part I:



And, here is Part II:



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