What do the bookshelves of the Muslim world tell us about the US Presidential race? In Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, where I was at a meeting with ministers, scholars and religious leaders from one end of the Muslim world to the other to discuss their relations with the US, I managed to sneak out for an evening to hit the Muslim “street” with an old friend from Washington.
In addition to the thriving cafes, packed restaurants, and buzzing mopeds of this 27-million strong Muslim-majority nation, what did I see? As we talked about Malaysia’s future, we wandered into a mega-bookstore that sold books in English, Malay and other languages. Without looking for it, I found myself standing face to face with an entire bookshelf of publications on or by Barack Obama. Taken aback, I looked for books on or by Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Clinton’s own book could be found, but nothing on or by McCain, though I didn’t go through the stacks with a magnifying glass. Combined with sentiment of the Malaysians I spoke to, the volume of Obama books on display spoke wonders about the aspirations of this corner of the world, the desire for a new American leadership, and the hope for a potential vibrant partnership with America.
And in this nation whose government has good relations with countries as diverse as the US, the UK, China and Saudi Arabia, few other biographies of world leaders from other countries jumped out at me, except perhaps a couple on Nelson Mandela.
While some pundits writing from their armchairs in Washington have suggested that the Muslim world at large would come to loath and disrespect Obama as an apostate who was born to a Muslim father (and a Christian mother) but who embraced Christianity, nothing could be farther from the truth. At least that’s what the streets, bookshelves, conferences and conversations in this Muslim country indicate.
Obama, a committed Christian, is seemingly singularly admired in Malaysia like no presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy, precisely for his ability to articulate American aspirations in a way that resonates universally. Further, the real reactions I’ve witnessed in that part of the world show the tremendous enthusiasm that the Obama candidacy elicits.
Indeed, ordinary Malaysians will tell you that they are not frustrated with America or American values, but rather, like the majority of Americans, with the Bush Administration’s policy decisions – to go to war in Iraq on flimsy evidence, to open Guantanamo Bay detaining scores of prisoners without trial for half a decade, and to curtail civil liberties at home.
At a time when virtually all polls show that America has never been less respected in the world, and when Middle East peace deals are being brokered in Istanbul and Doha instead of Washington, this is still a nation that would welcome American moral leadership again. This is, after all, a nation that became independent in the late 1950s and felt such an affinity with America that it affirmed a flag so close to the American flag that it can be confused with America’s Stars and Stripes at a distance.
They know they are not American citizens. They know they don’t get a vote. But many in Malaysia and across the region have told me – a Washingtonian on the road – that they feel as affected by the US government as their own home government. That they want to see America leading again. Not an America that leads by expressing its willingness to stay in Iraq for 100 years, but an America that partners with others to solve pressing problems. An America that leads through the power of its moral leadership not through the guns of its army. An America that the world aspires to emulate because it provides its citizens with freedom, its minorities with respect, its economy with vigour and its global audience with inspiration.
Whether or not we Americans vote for Obama is our own business, not theirs, but this Muslim-majority nation is clear on which candidate it feels can best restore America’s standing in the world.