During the U.S presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s handlers vigourously pointed out his Christian faith whenever the misconception arose he may be Muslim (even though the politically correct response should have been his religion doesn’t matter).
The handlers also roundly denounced any conservative commentator who might mention (mischievously, admittedly) his Arabic middle name, Hussein.
They charged that such usage was "fear mongering."
And now – in a gesture to the Muslim world – he has not only granted the first sit-down interview of his presidency to a pan-Arab television network, but uses the occasion to gush about his Muslim ties.
"I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries," Obama tells Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai.
Indeed, Obama’s Kenyan father, Barack Sr., was born into a Muslim family – though he became an atheist before arriving in Hawaii, where Obama Jr. was later born.
Obama also famously spent four years as a boy in Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country.
All that’s fine, except why was no one allowed to talk much about it before he snagged the Electoral College majority?
Obama’s unprecedented decision to shun American domestic networks over his first sit-down appeared aimed at sending a signal to the Muslim world that his administration marks a distinct break with that of George W. Bush.
Like we didn’t get that message from his pledge to close the detention camps at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba without so much as a plan for where he’ll transfer its terror suspects.
But much of the interview, broadcast Tuesday, offered troubling stuff for anyone who believes the West isn’t to blame for the Islamic world’s wrath.
Obama agreed with Melhem’s inference that Bush’s use of terms like "war on terror" and "Islamic fascism" demonized all Muslims.
"I think you’re making a very important point, and that is the language we use matters …" Obama said.
"We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name."
True. But there was nothing particularly Bushist about the "war on terror" term, and a helpful Wikipedia entry explains how it dates at least to the 19th century.
Obama confirmed he intends to address the Muslim world from a Muslim capital during the first 100 days of his presidency, but resisted Melhem’s bid to know which one.
Of course, the smart money is on the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, while you can pretty much rule out Baghdad.
"You're going to see me following through with dealing with a drawdown of troops in Iraq, so that Iraqis can start taking more responsibility," he said.
Obama explained he is going to educate people in both the United States and the Muslim world on how to get along.
"My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives," he said.
"My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."
So that’s the simple formula we’ve been we’ve been missing. Stay tuned to the new president for a couple of deftly worded, and theatrically delivered speeches – and centuries of Western-Islamic division will miraculously disappear.
Citing Iran’s threats towards Israel, and its "pursuit of a nuclear weapon," Obama said the Islamic republic had "acted in ways that [were] not conducive to peace and prosperity."
"But I do think it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran," he added.
Better hurry. Iran will have enough uranium to make a single nuclear weapon later this year, the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies said Tuesday at the launch of its annual global review of military powers.
The fact is there have been plenty of talks, incentive packages and UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
After the interview was broadcast Tuesday, Iran responded to the "extended hand" Obama said he was offering the Islamic republic.
"We are awaiting concrete changes from new U.S. statesmen," said an Iranian government spokesman. "On several occasions our president has defined Iran’s views and the need for a change in U.S. policies."
Even by Obama’s account, there will be no effective "change in U.S. policies." Washington and the West will still want to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Hence, don’t expect Tehran to see the offer of "more diplomacy" to be anything more than a gift of the time they still need to perfect the nuclear process.
Key parts of Obama’s interview to the Muslim world were a collective mea culpa.
"We sometimes make mistakes; we have not been perfect," he said as one explanation as to why there is so much hate in the Muslim world for the United States.
In other words, it’s America’s and, by extension, the West’s fault we’ve been under attack these past years.
He offered a similar apology when explaining his instruction to George Mitchell, the former Senator he appointed to begin seeking a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating …" he said. "So let’s listen."
Oddly, the interviewer Melhem came across as the most honest of the pair when he admitted that, throughout the Muslim world, there was a "demonization of America" that’s become "like a new religion" – complete with "converts and high priests."
That’s the sort of reality Obama needs to get his head around – instead of saying the equivalent of: "We’re wrong, you’re right."
Steven Edwards is New York correspondent for Canwest News