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PAKISTAN: Obama Inauguration Brings Hope, Scepticism

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Jan 20 2009 (IPS) - As billions of people around the world tuned in to participate electronically in Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, the message of hope that he symbolised resonated with Pakistanis – though some shrugged it off as part of a system that is unlikely to change.

Newspaper vendor Md. Rafiq holds up a local newspaper advertising TV coverage of the Obama inauguration. Credit: Beena Sarwar/IPS

Newspaper vendor Md. Rafiq holds up a local newspaper advertising TV coverage of the Obama inauguration. Credit: Beena Sarwar/IPS

One teacher has Obama as her Facebook picture, her online ‘status’ quoting Obama’s words: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

Many hope that, for a start, Obama will change the United States army’s policy of sending unmanned spy planes or drones to attack targets in Pakistan’s northern areas near the Afghan border. This serves only to feed militancy and violence, say analysts and Pakistani government officials.

"We hope that he will stop these attacks," said Sadiqa Waheeduddin, a 90-year-old former political activist and great-grandmother who keenly follows domestic and international politics. "But who will listen to me?"

Obama just might, believe those who are impressed with his emphasis on dialogue and negotiation. They include Abbas Husain, director of Teachers Development Centre and a prominent Islamic scholar who has been invited for the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House on Feb. 5.

Husain derives hope from "the new administration’s readiness to engage in dialogue at the deepest level, in stark contrast to the previous administration" as he put it, while cautioning against expecting any short term or immediate changes.

Obama, during his campaign, emphasised that neighbouring Afghanistan was central to the ‘war on terror’. Pakistan, a close ally in the war, has often been accused by the U.S. of not doing enough to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants that are believed to have found sanctuary in the rugged border areas.

"We are dealing with a lot of cussedness – on both sides – a lot of rigidity. It will be an uphill task, a long haul. But as long as there is this willingness to dialogue I have hope because it is dialogue that ultimately solves problems, not war and violence," Husain told IPS.

Husain, who hopes to shake Obama’s hand at the Breakfast, will be among representatives from some 120 countries invited for the occasion.

"Obama is forward looking and dynamic, and he inspires hope for people around the world," said Arif Pervaiz, a young environmentalist in Karachi, watching the inauguration with friends on TV. "That is the true test of a leader, their ability to inspire hope. A leader like Obama comes once in a century."

Talking to IPS, Pervaiz, who heads the Clinton Climate Change Initiative in Pakistan, also cautioned that those "whose expectations of Obama are sky high may be disappointed. He can’t single-handedly change the course of the U.S." However, he hopes that the inauguration will be "the start of change for the better."

Not everyone shares this optimism. A school friend of Pervaiz, visiting family in Pakistan from the U.S. where he manages a car dealership, told IPS: "Obama won’t bring any drastic changes in America’s foreign or domestic policies. There might be some token changes, but where it really matters like the economy, I don’t think there will be anything major."

The U.S. auto industry is reeling from the domino effect of multiple crises, including housing and mortgage. "That translates to a lack of consumer confidence. Our sales volume dropped probably 30 percent in the last six months. This year is forecast even lower. What can Obama or anyone do to change that? It’s going to play out as it’s going to play out," added the manager, requesting that his name not be used.

As for the war in Iraq, it was already ending, he said. "Anyone in Obama’s place would have overseen that change".

He shrugged off the projected closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "I don’t care about that. Most people don’t. It doesn’t impact my life. The people in there probably deserve to be in there, except maybe a few innocent ones. They would have no qualms about blowing us up right here. They don’t care about my human rights, why should I care about theirs?"

The ‘green card’ holder (tax-paying resident who is not a citizen) who has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years is unconcerned with Obama’s Muslim heritage or his ‘Pakistani connections’ – which he had not heard of in any case.

"I don’t think he’s made it to the president of the United States using his personalised feelings," said Pervaiz. "There are far greater considerations at hand. I don’t think he’s going to bomb Pakistan – that was campaign rhetoric and has to be taken in context – but his view will certainly not be coloured by his good friendships with a few Pakistanis."

"Obama’s ‘Pakistani connections’ have featured prominently in the Pakistani media over the past year. He had travelled to Karachi as a 20-year-old college student in 1981, spending three weeks here. He referred to the trip at a fundraiser in San Francisco on Apr. 5, 2008, in which he claimed more world experience than his rivals, senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

His press secretary, Bill Burton, told journalists that Obama came to Pakistan on the way back from Indonesia, after leaving Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1981 to transfer to Columbia University, New York. In Pakistan, he stayed in Karachi with the family of a college friend, Mohammed Hasan Chandeo. He also travelled to Hyderabad, India, to visit another college friend.

"Barack Obama may have visited Pakistan for longer than any U.S. president or presidential candidate ever has," commented Pakistan-born Adil Najam, professor of international relations at Boston University (‘Barack Obama’s Pakistan Connections’, Sep. 1, 2008 at the popular website

Obama has several college friends from Pakistan, including ‘Sadik’, identified in his memoirs, ‘Dreams from my Father’, as a "short, well-built Pakistani" who smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine and liked to party.

Obama’s freshman roommates at Occidental College included Imad Husain, a Pakistani, who is now a Boston banker and Vinai Thummalapally from Hyderabad, India. Other friends, Mohammed Hasan Chandeo and Wahid Hamid, both wealthy Pakistanis, have refused to talk to the media.

Many Pakistanis are reluctant to talk of their connections with Obama for fear of stoking rumours that Obama is a Muslim.

Margot Mifflin, a friend from Occidental, now a journalism professor at New York's Lehman College, explained the reluctance to Associated Press saying: "Obama, in the eyes of some right wingers, is basically Muslim until proved innocent. It's partly the Muslim factor by association and partly the fear of something being twisted."

"So, what does all of this mean? Probably nothing. At best, next to nothing," cautioned Adil Najam.

"Some Pakistanis might want to get all excited about these connections,'' Najam said. ''But, frankly, they will be as misguided in doing so as would be Obama-bashers who would like to concoct deep conspiracies and imagine dark implications of these amusing, but eventually inconsequential and incidental, connections of a young student."

Newspaper vendor Mohammad Rafiq expressed a deeper scepticism as he dismissed Obama’s Muslim or Pakistani connections. "None of these make a difference," he told IPS. "America’s policies are made ‘from behind’, not by the people at the front. So are Pakistan’s. No one individual can change that."

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