When it was announced that Obama would choose Cairo as the venue for his awaited Speech to the Muslim World, I was filled with rage. Here was another manifestation of Obama’s lack of interest in Democracy promotion and human rights. Appeasement was the word that came to my mind. My problem with his speech however was not limited to the venue alone. The idea of a speech to the Muslim World itself was problematic to begin with. In choosing to address the Muslim World, the Obama administration has signaled out its confirmation of the existence of such an entity in the first place and thus danced to the region’s propaganda tunes.
The ridiculous nature of such a choice can become clear when one imagines a similar address by a President, American or any other, to the Christian World. Such a speech would be greeted with utter disbelief. What is the Christian World anyway would be the question. No sensible politician would ignore differences between nations and categorize them according to religion. The only such example that would come to mind would be Osama Bin Laden’s addresses to the Christian World, since for him the world is such divided, but for an American President to do so!
In choosing to give this speech millions of diverse people were categorized by their religion and the region’s myth was accepted. Regardless of one’s nationality, diverse regional problems, or one’s adherence to the religious doctrine itself, all were united in this speech. Such a notion would include nations as far apart as Mali and Indonesia.
The second disturbing aspect of the speech itself is problem of Islam itself. The issue is simplified by some by the question of who speaks for Islam, but the question is much deeper: What is Islam in the first place? Like any religion Islam is a huge pool of ideas that can work in harmony or in conflict and like any other religion its traditions and in a great sense its set of beliefs has been shaped differently in various countries on the basis of history, geography and culture. In that sense there are many Islams and not just one which one can address. It is not only the extremist’s Islam and the moderate’s Islam, but the Egyptian version of Islam as opposed to that of Saudi Arabia. It is the version of Islam in Mali as opposed to that in Afghanistan. Again like any religion it is ridiculous to categorize it in one form or to address it as one entity. Bin Laden speaks for Islam just as Sheikh Tantawey speaks for it and both can find the supporting text for their ideas just as both the Crusaders and John Paul II could do the same. Perhaps Ali Ibn Abi Talib was the earliest to see this when he said referring to the Koran: “The Book has many Faces”.
Moving away from the idea of the address itself, one has to wonder what the goal is in the first place. Like any political action a certain goal is set and thus measured upon. I must say it utterly escapes me what the goal of such a speech is. Is the goal to inform the audience that America is not at war with Islam? Well who believes that such a war exists in the first place except the conspiracy theorists in the “Arab/ Mulsim World” and should one acknowledge their theories? It is of course besides the point to argue that such an audience would not be convinced. The minds that live on the conspiracy theory will not change their minds suddenly because of a few words by the ONE. The “Hate America crowd” will continue with their hatred for in reality their hatred is not based on substance but on ignorance, intolerance and a set of fascism that has overtaken a region since the 30’s. The speech thus is only a song for the choir, the internal and the external ones. The leftist audience in the US and their lunatic fellows in Europe will rejoice at the speech as a break from their imagined Bush policies and the external audience in the “Muslim World” will explode in joy at the ONE’s gesture towards them. Outside of that no clear goal was evident to my unintelligent eyes.
The venue itself is of course personally disturbing. As an Egyptian it is utterly disgusting to see the American President ignoring all American and universal values and appeasing an authoritarian regime. Mubarak’s regime which has been the cornerstone of the maintenance of the region’s continued state of repression was being given a gift of the first class. It is only ironic that Obama would choose to speak from a capital that embodies all the values that America stands against. Appeasement to such a regime is not only wrong but absolutely dangerous as 9/11 has taught us. It would be stupid of the American administration to think that such a speech is addressed to the Egyptian people who were besieged in their houses for his visit and who’s daily lives he disturbed. Those people who have been under a military dictatorship for the past 56 years whether in its totalitarian form under Nasser or in its authoritarian form under Sadat and Mubarak, were obviously the least suitable for his speech. If such a speech was to be delivered in the first place a better venue should have been chosen. A democratic country, where personal and religious freedoms were established would have been much more suited for his speech if he had intended to talk to the region’s people and not their authoritarian leaders and hate filled elites. Baghdad would of course had been perfect, but so would many others. The idea that the Muslim World consists only of dictatorships is naïve. There is no Islamic problem with democracy or a vacuum of freedom within it. Such a vacuum exists only in the so called “Arab World”. Many Muslim countries if countries can be categorized by religion are available from Albania to Indonesia and from Turkey to the Maldives. To ignore all these options and choose Egypt can only be viewed as a slap on the face to all the democracy activists in the region and to the values that Obama supposedly stands for.
With this anticipation or more precisely the lack thereof I awaited his speech and the impact it would have. Obama’s speech seemed to be generating a lot of results even before it began. The Egyptian regime whishing to look in its best form before the eyes of the ONE and the rest of the world embarked on a huge program of renovation and cleaning. Cairo University was cleaned as it had never been before and its dome shined as it had never shined. Every street that Obama would pass through was cleaned and decorated. The intense renovation program by the government led to Egyptians joking that they wanted Obama to visit every street and district in Cairo so that the whole city can be cleaned.
The speech itself of course held no surprises. Obama as a great speaker was the most suitable for his skeptical audience. This should not be however interpreted as a huge success. Obama received the numerous claps, but only when he played to the audiences previously held ideas or as the Sandmonkey once put it “when he gave them a hand job”. Their masturbation session was complete and the audience reached its orgasm with every line about Palestine or appeasement to their world view, but Obama received an utter silence when he discussed other issues. The parts on the Holocaust and 9/11 were met with a complete lack of reaction.
Obama’s speech was however disturbing to me in what he did say and what he chose to ignore. Let us begin by what he said.
Obama framed the tension between the West and Muslims as a tension rooted in history from religious wars to colonialism. Here Obama fell prey to the “Muslim World’s” interpretation of the conflict and not to the conflict as it is. To argue that the Crusades or the imperialist era is the root of the current conflict, Obama chose the Bin Laden vision of the world. The current conflict is not rooted in religious wars by any side nor is it rooted in occupation. The current conflict is rooted in modernity and the clash between a modern world and a pre modern fascist movement that is the child of Hitler and Mussolini. The Crusades are not part of the story here neither is the Islamic invasion of the region in the 6th century. Colonialism is also not related and was not in any term a religious conflict. As to the Cold War’s treatment of Muslim-majority countries as proxies without regard to their own aspirations, one has to wonder whether the same could not be said on his own actions ignoring those who aspire to be free in the region.
Obama’s second framework for his speech is that of a suspicion towards Islam that was built after 9/11. Here again Obama fell prey to such lunacy held ideas as the existence of Islamophobia. Such a notion only serves to crush any serious debate of actions undertaken by people and where they originate from. Such a term has been the easiest way out for oppressive regimes and fascist elites not interested in self examination and not capable of standing in front of a serious examination.
The third dominant idea throughout his speech is that of a new beginning. This new beginning would be based on respect and that America and Islam are not in competition. While the notion of a conflict between a Democratic State and a world wide religion is laughable in the first place as no such conflict can exist, Obama’s insistence on framing it as such only plays once again to the region’s conspiracy theories defining the Bush years as against Islam or as part of the Crusades.
Moving through the speech Obama chose to ignore facts and to invent ones when necessary. While Islamic centers of learning were indeed beacons of light in the Middle Ages, Al Azhar was certainly not. The Mosque and the School were both built after the decline of intellectual freedom and innovation in the Muslim world. Al Azhar did not play the role that Cordoba, Baghdad or Cyprus played in the exchange of culture and innovation. Al Azhar stood for the exact opposite. It stood for the repression of free thought and innovation.
In choosing the Tripoli Treaty of 1796 as his example, Obama also played freely with the facts. The Tripoli Treaty was a bribe paid by the young nation to pirates after their Ambassador in London informed Thomas Jefferson that “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.” Having no Navy capable of fighting those pirates the US paid them $1 million a year. The Treaty was broken after the US decided not to pay the bribe anymore and in reality the first relationship between America and that part of the world was war and not peace. The first war America fought after its independence was against Berber Pirates in Tripoli and was followed by the second Barbary War in 1815.
Obama also sited a number of American Muslims that is outside any factual estimate. The City University of New York has put the number at 1.1 milion, the Glenmary Research Center at 1.6 million, the World Factbook at 1.8 million, and the Pew Research Center as 2.4 million. The number of 7 million is only used by such organizations as CAIR.
Moving on to the 7 issues Obama discussed, one has to applaud his courageous words on 9/11. Obama words could not have been sharper when he said; “These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with”, but Obama has failed to give the intellectual moral framework for the conflict. Being no George Bush, Obama chose not to call it evil and to frame the conflict as Bush did as that of Islamofascism against the world. He thus failed to put the conflict in perspective of the world’s fight against its likes before from Nazism to Communism. Being also no Bush and lacking his clear perspective he choose to define the Iraq War as a war of choice and not as a fight against Fascism just as Afghanistan is. He also fell prey to the region’s fantasies regarding torture and double standards by America. The War on Islamofascism is not contrary to American ideals, it is the embodiment of those ideals.
On the question of Israel and Palestine, Obama was courageous enough in his first words on the unbreakable bond between America and Israel. Such words while true take a lot of courage to state in front of such an audience. Also courageous and clear was his statement on the Holocaust and his condemnation of its denial. What lacked however was the conclusion. Why did the Holocaust take place and how can we make sure it never happens again? How can we stop Anti Semitism from rising and how can we stop a nuclear Iran from repeating history? These are the questions Obama left unanswered. Also left unanswered is the major question of why the Palestinian people have suffered so much and the region’s role in that suffering? It is utterly hilarious to discuss the Palestinian intolerable situation in Gaza or the West Bank while ignoring their equally intolerable situation in Lebanon. Such set of thinking is all too common in the region, but that does not make it acceptable for Obama to follow suit. In a real discussion of the issue one has to question the region’s real interest in solving the conflict or helping the Palestinians. His statements on the two-state solution were clear enough although they ignored all the evidence proving such a solution unattainable currently. For a Palestinian State to be established Obama discussed institution building but was completely silent on democracy and combating extremism not in deeds alone but on the textbooks that ensure the continued cycle of violence. In using the term “Arab Israeli Conflict”, Obama again fell prey to the region’s version of history. While a Palestinian Israeli conflict exists and needs to be addressed, an Arab Israeli one is only an invented mechanism of the region’s authoritarian regimes to continue to ignore their people’s real needs and aspirations in pursuit of an invented conflict.
On the Iranian question Obama talked as little as possible, but his talk was troubling. The conflict between America and Iran is not one of decades of mistrust, it is between two ideas, two sets of values and two world views. Iran is not a case of a misunderstanding that leads to lack of trust. Iran has been very clear in where it stands and no illusions exist on that matter. The real question is what to do about it.
Perhaps shorter than his discussion of Iran was his mention of democracy. While it is true that no system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by another, it is also true that no system of government can or should be imposed on a nation by one man, one party or one ideology. While Obama was clear that ideas of democracy, the rule of law and a transparent government are not an American idea, but a human right, he fell silent on how he would support them.
In his Religious freedom paragraphs, Obama chose again to play with facts. While it is true that Andalusia had a proud history of tolerance such words can not be said on the whole Islamic history. Those centuries were filled with peaceful coexistence as they were also filled with religious intolerance, Dzimmi Status and persecutions. Indonesia, which Obama mentions is a current example of that with its religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims. To try to pass modern notions born out of modernity such as human rights, religious freedom and democracy on a pre modern religion is naïve. The idea that a modern ideal such as tolerance is part of Islam is as laughable as an argument that Jesus Christ’s answer on giving the coin to Caesar is a deeply rooted secularism in Christianity. Pre modern religions, ideologies and values are not related to modernity. As to his comments regarding charitable giving rules on America, one is left wondering what exactly he means. Should rules on one religion’s charitable organizations be different from the others? Also ambiguous is his comments on Muslims being barred from practicing religion in Western countries. While Turkey’s practices and laws against Hijab are disgusting and illiberal, one is left wondering on the lack of comment on forcing Hijab on girls that are 6 or 8 years old.
This brings us to women’s rights. While anyone viewing a veiled women as less equal is disgusting, one wonders where those people exist? Whom in the West has promoted such notions? While it is also true that Muslim countries have elected a Women President while the United States has not, such a measurement of women’s rights is extremely simplistic and naïve. Obama failed to address real issues that women face in the region from family killings, arranged marriages to violence and humiliation against women.
What Obama did not mention however is as important as what he did. He only touched on issues of democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He chose to ignore the plights of the people in the region whom can not choose their own lives and fortunes. He made no reference to the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that rule the region and whose policies and ideologies destroyed not only its present people but generations to come. What he most ignored was a challenge to Muslims for self examination and thus an opportunity to reach a real understanding of one’s self and the world around him. In this Obama fell silent and in this he failed. Having no clear strategy in my view for his address, the address will fade away as soon as the realities on the ground become clear. Those who are living in the alternative universe of the conspiracy theories will not change their minds and those of us who seek a better world have gained little. One lesson however is absolutely clear. For those Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese who fight for their freedoms in their countries, who believe in the values of democracy and the rule of law have lost a Friend in the White House and have gained an ENEMY. For someone who fights for his freedom there is only two options: You are either with me or against me.