President-elect Obama is slated to give a major speech addressing US-Muslim world relations, sometime early in his term, in some major Islamic city. Much speculation, with Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia (as well as others) receiving a great deal of attention from those interested and speculating. (See here for several) All fine and good. I have some suggestions of my own (which I will get to later). Rob at the Arab Media Shack has made some interesting comments concerning this idea over the last month. On 4 December, on the occasion of an NYT article by Helene Cooper arguing for Cairo, he concurred because of the Egyptian capital’s Islamic and political credentials. Today, he argued, somewhat problematically, against an op-ed pushing for Indonesia.
The op-ed, by Michael Fullilove argues the following:
Choosing Indonesia would throw light on the diversity and richness of Islam, which is not, contrary to lingering perceptions, practiced solely by Arabs or only in the Middle East. The country, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, does a reasonable job of managing its considerable religious heterogeneity. Going there would help Mr. Obama to reframe the debate in the West about Islam and terrorism.
An Indonesian audience would also make sense. Indonesians have been both victims and perpetrators of terrorist attacks, including the deadly Bali bombings. The government in Jakarta is an important partner in the effort against terrorism.
Selecting Indonesia would demonstrate that Mr. Obama takes democracy seriously, given that Indonesia is a rowdy democracy — the third-largest in the world. It would show that President Bush’s misshapen democratization agenda has not turned his successor into an icy realist.
Reminding the world of Mr. Obama’s origins could help counter anti-Americanism. Who would have thought the United States would elect a president with memories of wandering barefoot through rice paddies and “the muezzin’s call at night”?
This is a good argument, and it is especially strong in that it recognizes that Islam is larger than the Arabs and larger than the Middle East. In any event US-Muslim relations, a somewhat nebulous concept because of its vastness of scope, is something that should be dealt with carefully and with the diversity of world Islam. US-Arab relations, with which Rob and many others are preoccupied, must be dealt with in their context and on their terms. There can be no Muslim world policy, as there can be no Catholic policy. What will placate Muslims in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Kenya or Senegal may not have the same results in the Arab world. With this in mind, it makes sense for Obama to give a major speech on US-Muslim relations in a non-Arabic-speaking country.
Rob disagrees, strongly.
If the goal is to repart US-Muslim relations, the speech has to be done in an “Islamic country.” Its true and politically correct to say that Islam is widely practiced outside of the Arab world, but the heartland of Islam is the Arab world. Every important Islamic insitution is in the Arab world and the langage of Islam is Arabic so if the US President wants to reach Muslims, he has to go to the Arab world. Going to Indonesia to improve US-Muslim relations is like the President of France trying to repair US-French relations by giving a speech in rural North Dakota.
This is a highly Arabo-centric view, and while there is often basis for such bias, the centricity of the Arab world to modern Islam is overstated as it often is. Yes, orthodox learning is centered in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and other areas of the Arab world, but this does not diminish or eliminate the relevance of the major seats of Islamic knowledge and tradition in Senegal, Turkey, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. Indonesia is an Islamic country as Syria or Egypt is. It is not an Arab Islamic country, and this is what makes it a very good candidate. It not a matter of “political correctness” to discuss the Muslim world in terms of its diversity: It is a matter of accuracy and realism. The Islamic heartland in the Arabic-speaking Middle East is a massively important component of the religion and its identity. This does not mean that the other massive centers of population and culture within the Muslim world are automatically without significance. Indonesia is not so isolated and politically removed as to be the Islamic equivalent of North Dakota. It is more like California or Texas.
Even still, the Sufi orders so powerful as institutions in Senegal, Nigeria, Turkey and Indonesia negate the claim that “every important Islamic institution” is found in the Arab world. Every important orthodox Islamic institution is. Other parts of the Muslim community, because of geography and history, have established other centers of relevance and without those — if the religion were limited to the “important” centers in the Arab world — Islam would not continue in practice outside of the Arab Middle East.
These alternative, non-Arab centers are what have entrenched and continue to ground Islam within the peripheral societies like Indonesia and black Africa. Many of them, especially those in Africa, operate separately from the major Middle Eastern institutions. The settled Islam that is promoted from the Gulf and Egypt is often at odds with the established traditional and folk practices outside the region. The narrative it has sought to establish, and has been successful in establishing in many parts of the world, is precisely that the Arab Middle East is all important to Islam, that its modernist/reformist and retrograde movements are the only correct and relevant practices and that others are deviant or without merit. This discourse privileges the place of the Arabs in Islamic history, downplaying the importance of the “converted peoples,” and their traditions. (Tariq bin Zayid becomes an Arab; the Iranian and other non-Arab theologians and scientists, too, become Arabs and Islamic civilization is conflated with Arab civilization.) It is problematic for obvious and not so obvious reasons that are not especially relevant here. But I think it goes without says that while the language of Islam may be Arabic, the language of most Muslims is not. There is no merit in speaking of Indonesia or other non-Arab countries not being “Islamic countries.”
Secondly, when we talk about repairing US-Muslim relations, we are really talking about US-Arab relations. This is where the sense of grievance is strongest. Its the Arab world which saw the Iraq war, and perceived lack of US interested in the Palestinian cause. Its mostly Arab prisoners who are locked up in Guantanamo and its mostly Arabs who are perceived as being discriminated against in West, in airports for example.
This is an important point, and it is the stronger of the two Rob makes. US-Arab relations need to be dealt with as such. The US’s problems in the Muslim world start in the Arab world and end somewhere near India or China. The invasion of Iraq, the Palestinian problem, the Guantanamo problem, as Rob notes, are ones the Arabs more than most other Muslims are interested in. It would not be especially profound for Obama to give a speech on these issues in Tirana or Djibouti (though the later is a member of the Arab League).
Therefore, as Rob obviously knows, the Arab world should not be conflated with the Muslim world more generally: Most of the Muslims in this world are neither Arab nor Arabic-speakers. The seat of the last Caliphate, Istanbul, was not an Arab city and its rulers were not Arabs. Indonesia may not be the best option, but the list of “Islamic countries” is by no means whatsoever limited to Arab states, and when seeking to make an address to a community of a billion or more people, world leaders should not fall victim to the myopia that characterizes the Arab world as being the only relevant part of the Islamic world.
If Obama wants to make a general statement about how the US looks at the Muslim world, that it does not view it simply through the lens of conflict and the Arab world, that it is conscious and respectful of the diversity of the global Muslim community, that it wants to reach out to as much of it as possible, and that it shares common civic, political and security values and goals with Muslims, it makes sense to position the speech outside of the Arab world. This cannot be done in Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. A country like Senegal, where communal coexistence, tolerance, the practice of Islam and democracy are all in force largely without contradiction makes more sense than giving a speech in a dictatorship where violent and retrograde religious ideologies dominate official and semi-official religious discourses. A speech in the Arab region would be most appropriate for a speech concerned mostly with the issues relevant to that area of the world. It makes good sense to separate what are specifically or especially Arab issues from general Muslim issues, and giving the speech in a non-Arab country can accomplish that goal.
Noone’s suggesting that giving a speech in Indonesia would be a bad thing. Its just not going to be seen as anything special. The Muslims the US is trying to influence the most, the Arabs, aren’t going to view it as an attempt to repair US-Muslim relations, but simply as the US President giving a speech in Indonesia.
My proposals for the speech would be as follows, in no particular order: Tunisia (Tunis), Morocco (Rabat, Casablanca, Fes, though not all capitals are good settings), Egypt (Cairo), Indonesia (Jakarta), Senegal (Dakar), and Syria (Damascus). The draw backs with all but Indonesia and Senegal are their human rights records which in every case are at best questionable and with Egypt and Indonesia the general lack of religious and ethnic tolerance between the majority and minority communities. With Syria, it may be “too soon,” following the Lebanese problem, its Iranian connection, and the Israel issue along with human rights questions. But Damascus certainly has strong Islamic credentials and such a visit would have major policy significance. With Indonesia and Senegal, there is the problem of obscurity, but they would carry a great deal of symbolism in the context of world Islam and the president’s personal narrative. It would also make it easier for the president to highlight common values between the United States and Islamic countries (they are democracies, after all), and to emphasize an understanding of Islam and Muslims that is more grounded in demographic reality than common perceptions. Morocco’s draw back is that while it is a US ally it has problems with its neighbors and such a high level visit for a major pronouncement could have an unhealthy impact on the regional balance of power perceptions by irritating its neighbors. Still, the Kingdom represents a different aspect of trans-Atlantic cooperation, multi-culturalism (as flaky as it sounds and as tenuous it may be for some of the Saharoui and Imazighen), general religious toleration, and Morocco has been an American ally since the foundation, as Moroccans never cease to remind their New World colleagues. Tunisia has the human rights problem, the obscurity issue (despite its having been the base of the Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean.) Egypt is a good choice but comes with problems that Rob aptly described on the 4th.
I therefore agree with Radwan Masmoudi in looking to Istanbul or Casablanca, and I would add Dakar to the list. Morocco offers the strongest choice though: It is both Arab and non-Arab (Berber/Amazigh), it is Muslim, it is African, and it is off the traditional axis of the Arab world, and this would allow for more freedom of subject matter and rhetoric. This does not, however, leave it without problems, as mentioned above. Turkey is not as eager to be identified with Islam, but the significance of Istanbul would be firm and clear. Dakar carries many of Morocco’s benefits without the costs, but its small size and relative obscurity make it a harder case. As a center of West African and Saharan Islam, democracy and tolerance, though, it provides a good sounding board. Talk of Ramallah and Tel Aviv — which so many want to hear — might sound out of place there, though it could be weaved in.
In any event, there are plenty of good choices throughout the Islamic world and what will count most is the content of the speech, not so much where it is delivered: A ground breaking policy speech from a historic president is what it is.