Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Dalia Ziada interview in Daily News about Obama Speech from Cairo

American Islamic Congress will benefit from Obama’s visit, says director

By Safaa Abdoun
First Published: June 2, 2009
Click HERE for the original article

CAIRO: As the Arab and Muslim world pricks up its ears for US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated speech on June 4, Dalia Ziada, North Africa director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), has expectations of her own.

For Ziada, Obama’s attempt to improve the relationship between the US and the Muslim world will make for a smoother ride for the AIC — an organization falsely perceived as promoting “imported ideologies from the West,” she says.

“The objectives of the center which include promoting democracy, human rights and women’s rights have been labeled as ‘imported ideologies’ which people here in the Arab World look at as against our religion, morals and beliefs,” explained Ziada.

“This is because that’s their perception of the West, so when they find America is taking steps towards us and even taking action to end things like the war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict this perception will change,” she said.

Ziada notes that images such as that of Obama holding the Palestinian president’s hand tells the Arab World that he is with us, “that we are not enemies but friends.”

“Therefore improving the relationship with America will make everything easier for us, as we are no longer promoting something against the society, but something the society looks up to and believes in,” she said.

Obama’s visit

Ziada lauded Obama’s visit and the fact that he is reaching out to the Muslim world and turning a new page.

She also praised his choice of Egypt as a venue, calling it a “smart move.”

“Egypt is known for its key role in the region, he chose a location that holds a special place in [Arab] hearts,” she said.

“In addition, Egypt is a moderate Islamic nation, with Sunnis and Shia and other sects, so he is speaking to all Muslims from here,” she added.

While Ziada said it is difficult to predict what Obama’s speech will include, she said it is likely to have positive reverberations.

She expects him to criticize the former administration and its relationship with the Arab world. She also expects that the speech will include promises of future cooperation between the US and the Muslim world.

Ziada, however, admits to initially opposing Obama during the elections.

“He reminded me of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the young charismatic leader who is a great speaker and after he gives a speech you are inspired, but all goes down to nothing as nothing is ever accomplished … I always refer to Abdel Nasser as the man of words and not action,” she said.

But Obama proved her wrong after five months in office by decisions such as closing down Guantanamo Bay prison, a plan to withdraw from Iraq and a dialogue with the Muslim world.

“He is someone who wasn’t just talking when he said ‘change has come to America’. I say that change has come to the world, thanks to him,” she added.

The American Islamic Congress is born

AIC was founded after Sept. 11 by Zeinab El Swaij, the current chair, with the objective of improving the image of Muslims in America. It then developed to improving the image of the Middle East as a whole.

The activities of AIC expanded to the Middle East with offices in Iraq, Kuwait and Cairo, in addition to its headquarters in Boston.

When AIC’s North Africa office first opened in Cairo in mid-2007 many people were against it, and Ziada, a blogger and human rights activist at the time, was strongly criticized by fellow bloggers and activists.

“It was shocking to see people accusing me of working with an American organization that is actually an NGO working for our benefit,” said Ziada.

But AIC in Cairo worked against the odds; it was widely acclaimed last year for holding the first Cairo Festival for Human Rights Films, which, despite the many challenges they faced, received wide media coverage and was adopted by other countries in the region.

Obama in the blogs

Ziada has been a blogger since 2006, authoring the “Dalia Ziada: Human Life from a Daliatic Approach” blog.

She has been following the reaction to Obama’s visit on the blogosphere.

There have been American bloggers who are very critical of Obama for working on improving the relationship with “the terrorists.”

“There is even a blog entry with Obama’s picture as Osama Bin Laden,” said Ziada.

On the other hand, the majority of bloggers approve of Obama’s move, she said.

“They [Americans] are fed up of focusing mainly on foreign policy, so they want to patch things up with the rest of the world, especially the Muslim world, so they would guarantee that no new enemies or terrorists arise so they would start working on domestic policy,” explained Ziada.

In addition, bloggers in the Muslim and Arab world are optimistic about Obama’s visit, she noted.

She explains that Arab bloggers are hopeful yet skeptical of the visit at the same time, “Some are saying there is a conspiracy theory behind it because at the end of the day, he is an American president.”

“Even if he is an American president working for his own benefit he is different than any other president and we have to see that his interests lay in our interests too so we should be happy,” she said.

“It’s a win-win situation for all of us.”

Click HERE for original article.