More on Zawahiri and Racism

November 19, 2008 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

In the brief period since the release of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “House Negro” tape, bloggers have gone crazy celebrating the U.S.’s free-of-charge good fortune. Over at TAPPED, Adam Serwer calls it an Al Qaeda “Epic Fail” — proving himself knowledgeable of all internet traditions — and succinctly remarks:

There’s been a lot of skepticism about an Obama victory shifting the Muslim world’s view of the United States, but judging by this statement at the very least it’s made Al Qaeda’s efforts to develop a compelling rhetorical indictment of America visibly more difficult.

That’s exactly right. It’s easy to forget how much of the world personalizes foreign policy. (Americans, of course, are no exception.) With an American president as loathed as George W. Bush around the world, it’s easy for Al Qaeda to portray the U.S. as venal and stupid and brutish as he’s proven. Obama complicates the narrative significantly: the very color of his skin, precisely what Al Qaeda mocks, symbolizes America’s willingness to change. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda fears most.

That’s why I kind of disagree with my friend Eric Martin of Obsidian Wings when he writes, “for no apparent reason, Zawahiri leads al-Qaeda directly into that headwind with a racial insult that serves little ideological purpose.” The racial epithet is a botched way of advancing a deep ideological necessity for Al Qaeda: to keep its narrative going, Zawahiri has to define Obama as not authentically American.

None of this is to say that the election of Barack Obama magically transforms the war on terrorism. Policy is still policy. Right now I’m finishing up a piece about what a new progressive counterterrorism agenda for the Obama administration might look like. The Muslim world, rather understandably, will judge Obama by what he does, not by how he looks. And the honeymoon with Obama, both domestically and globally, will inevitably end.

Still, as Ilan Goldenberg notes at Democracy Arsenal, “Al Qaeda’s narrative is now under siege and it’s clearly uncertain about how to react.” That sort of disruption is precisely what the U.S. needs to rapidly exploit. In both policy and public-diplomacy terms, the clay is still wet. Why haven’t we seen the State Dept.’s blog hit the Zawahiri “House Negro” tape yet?