On Obama’s Islamic world speech

24muslim0600President-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.

This really is, though, the heart of the issue. Is this a speech on US-Muslim relations, or is it really a speech on US-Arab relations? If the latter is the case, as much should be made clear. A message for Arabs will be different than for Muslims world wide, and should be. The content of the speech Obama hopes to make should draw a fine line between Arab and Muslim affairs and how the Obama administration wants to handle these. Mashing the two together will not win hearts and minds, because it is the nature of bad things to infect good ones and the problems in US-Arab relations will easily spill over and contaminate American relations with other predominantly Muslim areas of the world in ways that they have not previously. The speech therefore should not seek to be both an Arab policy speech and a Muslim policy one. Rather, it should focus on one element of American foreign policy and address its audience accordingly. This is not to reject Rob’s view out of hand, but simply to say that Indonesia makes as much sense when speaking to the large body of Muslims as an Arab country does, or an African one, and makes more sense than a Central Asian country or Bosnia or Sudan. An Arab country would make sense, but that is not because of some inherent Islamitude that is found in Arabs and not in Indonesians or other Muslims, but because of current political events and scenery as it fits into the Atlantic and Arab schema of what is authentically Islamic. But most Muslims will not be listening to Obama from those regions and depending on the substance of his speech it may not be what they believe to be the most representative setting for a speech to a geographically and ethnographically diverse community.    

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.

6 thoughts on “On Obama’s Islamic world speech

  1. I completely agree with your list in conclusion. Casablanca or Istanbul both make huge sense. While I find Dakkar relevant, I am afraid that Senegal may not be perceived in the same way in the rest of the Muslim world. It is, after all, more secular a country than Turkey itself. I would add Beirut as a potential symbol. I know it is arguable, but, unlike Egypt or Syria, Lebanon is not a dictature. It is also not a Muslim only country (but so is Indonesia). I think it would make sense and could open some avenues for discussion with regimes that you mentioned yourself as “too soon” to address (Syria, Iran).

  2. Thanks Kal for this post. It is one of the best of yours. Allthough I do not agree with you on every thing, I am happy that you see the things the way you do. Generally speaking, I can neither see the necessity of this speech in the current situation, nor that Obama needs to go to any Islamic country at all to adress the Muslims . I think that for many ordinary Muslims( religiously seen, and this is important because both the Ialamic movements either failed or radical ,and the dictators are seen as traitors and kuffar( Plural of kafir) and therefor widely hated). If Obama wishes to adress the Muslims, it is not important where he gives his speech. First of all, I would rule out the option of any Arab country or city. This may sounds strange when comes from an Arabic person. Why then? All the Muslims know that their is no kind of symbolism in Islam. This can be easily understood when we consider the simple obvious fact that the symbols are generally not Islamic ( اوثان). That is why the arts have not developed in the Islam ( as in the Christianity, fot instance ). When we say Mekka is important for the Muslims, this does not mean that a Non-Muslim president who goes there would be appreciated by the Muslims. Similarly,there is no ( and have never existed) an (Isalmic Vatican).

    The great Islamic ulama ( scholars) have been respected throughout the history only because of their knowledge, not because of their closeness to the hukkam ( plural of hakim= governer).

    This is as much more important considering that the Caliphs were strong and fighted hard for the Islam and the Islamic Umma(= nation) . The so called Ulama of today are appointed by the dictators and therefor, they obey , and treat the dictators like umara al muminin (pl. of Amir al-Muminin).

    In fact, the Islamic last Caliph and Amir,in Islamic terms, was the Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb.
    All the following Islamic states were secular. The famous Islamic Sunni instituations ( universities) , like the Azhar, have lost their previous reputation. They have been a witness of the rise of radical preachers for the last four dicades . They remained deedless because they are afraid of the regime,s Mukhabarat( intelligence) . This ,of corse, applies to the known Islamic movements, like the hypocritical Brotherhood. So, countries (politics) that raised people such as Bin laden , Zawahiri, Zarqawi (and & co) ,who caused a great deal of harm to the Muslims and their reputation in the world , are, therefor, not qualified to represent the Islamic umma. The core issue in the Middle East is the Arab/Palastinean – Israeli conflict. The dictators are trying now to find any possible excuse to reach any peace agreement with the Jewish state. I think that many have heard of the so called Arabic Peace Initiative(API). The problem is that the dictators do not represent the democratic majorities in their countries.

    On the other side, the Israelis( even if do not admit it) do not believe that the dictators are able to offer any garantees in terms of lasting peace. Simply, it does not make sense, if Israel signed a formal peace agreement with the dictators ( such an agreement were signed with Egypt , Jordan and the Palestinean authority) ,and years later, the Jews are being killed or kidnaped in the Arabic streets. The question is:given this sad fact, why the dictators are urging the API now? I think they are doing that because it seems to be the only way for them to obtain the western support (financial, military and intelligence ). They have no other option. They have nothing to offer, and they can not stay in power any longer because their people want to see tangible change, they can not threaten Israel with war because their people will not fight for them ( the vast majority of the Iraqis invited the US troops, instead of defending Saddam regime).We saw early this year this Arabic lack of will and weakness . The big states ( Egypt, Saudi-Arabia and Jordan) received orders from the US(Mrs Rice) to boykott the ordinary summit of the so called Arab league. The dictators are supportig (and exploiting )the powerless president Abbas, so that they can tell their people : look, the Palestineans themselves, are negotiating with the Israelis ( اهل مكة ادرى بشعابها), and for this reason we can meet the Jews everywhere to push on the process. Israel and the west should decide which sort of peace they want. I think, the best option is to seek a durable peace in that region. Achieving this goal ( I am not going to mention what the Israelis and the Palestinian have to do) requires that the will of the neighboring people should be respected. This means that the west , the US in particular, should focus on democratic reforms in the Arab countries ( = the key countries). Only free and proud neighbouring societies can offer peace and accept the Jewish state. What has the west reached from its unlimitted support of those dictators? What we see every day,anyway, is that the western people are being killed and kidnapped in the Arabic countries. All this extremism is the result of their (dictators) failed policies. The media of the dictators is spreading ignorace and stultification. I do not understand why they have launched all these glossy newspapers,channels and websites, if there is no change in people,s way of thinking. They are now telling the mob( غوغاء) that the journalist who threw the shoe at Bush, is a hero ( actually, some wrote poems and articles on praising him). I am explaining this to show that there are no positive development in the Meadle East (ME), including peace, as long as the dictators are in power. If Obama chooses an Arabic state, the respective dictator will see (exploit) the visit as an approval of his politics. The dictators hate each other and have created a great deal of sensitivity among the Arabic/ Islamic societies, even among their own people, such as promoting tribalism and sectarianism. What , I think, not reconcilable with any serious attempt to modernize these societies,

    there are things that the Arabic (key) counties have in common : dictatorial regime, violation of human rights, no positive signs for change,they are geographically,economically important, and democratically crippled societies, that have been exporting radical ideology, remained deedless( tolerated, even supported ! ) towards wars( crimes against humanity) that have led to a great number of refugees and suffering ( Kurds,Palestine, Western Sahara, Darfur, internal issues ), contrary to the US allied western democracies, the Arabic countries have been, according to amnesty, a hub of the CIA secret flights where suspects have been questioned and tortured. For these reasons, the visit of the young , with overwhelmig majority democratically elected Obama to the dictatorships, would not have the meaningful symbol, and I am sure that the majority of Arabs/Muslims would be deeply disappointed.

    As for Turkey, there are different Arabic views concerning the Ottoman Empire. In the eastern part ( that we call the ME) the people supported the western Empires(France, Great Britain) against their Islamic brothers,because( according to the Arabic school books) the Ottomans were mainly responssible for the backwardness of the Arab countries. In North Afrika , on the other hand, the Ottomans helped( actually were welcomed, invited,at least in Algeria) the locals to defend themselves against the western ( Christian) powers. This attitudes may have changed, but this fact sheds lights on the background of the Arabic Turkish relationship.

    The Islamists, whose opinion may be relevant, are generally not fascinated by the modern Turkey, due to Ataturk’s orginally strict laicism and its closeness to the west and the Turkish NATO membership.

    The Senegal would be a good idea, although is seen as rather francophone (more western oriented ) country, and the Sufism, although peaceful, is not necessarily Islamic correct. I read an article by a Mauretanian writer ( Ould Bouna , a Polisario friendly ) says that president Wade had symptoms of Alzheimer. Honestly, I do not know if this is true, or just the writer is criticising Wade’s support of the Moroccan proposal for the former Spanish colony.

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