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In Syria buildup, Obama can't forget broader Muslim world

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(Read caption) Nigerian government soldiers provide security from atop of an armored personal carrier during Eid al-Fitr prayers at Ramat square in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, Aug. 8, 2013.

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A version of this post originally appeared in Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

As President Obama and the Congress decide how to respond to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, Alex Thurston has published a sobering post on his Sahel Blog.

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In his “A Northern Nigerian Prediction about Syria, Validated,” Mr. Thurston briefly recounts a conversation from 2011 with a northern Nigerian Muslim who predicted that the US would “bomb Syria.” 

Thurston observes that “many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive.” He observes that he is not a pollster, and I am not one, either.

But his conclusion fits my own experience. The US approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Libya, and perhaps soon, Syria, is seen by many in northern Nigeria as fundamentally anti-Islamic. 

Evidence is, of course, anecdotal. For example, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 some 70 percent of all baby boys born in a particular Kano hospital were named “Osama.”

It’s sad. Northern [Nigerian] Muslims are by no means predestined to be hostile to the United States.  For example, the US refusal to endorse the third term aspirations of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was deeply unpopular in the north, resulted in a momentary boost in American popularity.

Like everywhere else, in northern Nigeria, “all politics is local.” Manifestations of American friendship and respect for the north and for Islam in a local context can overcome or mitigate anger at US policies in other parts of the world. 

Here is the full text of Alex Thurston's short blog [Ed.]: 

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In late 2011, in Kano, I was talking about Syria’s crisis with a friend of mine.

“Soon America will bomb them,” he said.

At the time, I thought his prediction was wrong. But his tone – which conveyed his sense that the bombing was inevitable – stayed with me.

Time has proven him right, and me wrong.

I am not a pollster and I cannot say how a billion Muslims feel about anything. But I think my friend is not alone. I think that many Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, look at American military actions in the Middle East as habitual, predatory, and destructive.

My friend also said that “men with long beards” would eventually rule Libya, and that the US had not understood this when it intervened there.

We’ll see if he is right about that as well, and we’ll see what unintended consequences stem from American strikes in Syria.