On Obama’s Ramadan message

President Obama’s Ramadan message was, as his remarks to the Muslim world often are, at best well choreographed and well composed and at worst thoroughly disingenuous and problematic. As a part of the White House’s outreach to the Muslim world, it not only cross referenced the Cairo speech, and the president’s commitment to “a new beginning between America and Muslims around the world”. While there is little to argue with in the core of that message, that relationships should be based on common interests and respect, the Obama administration has yet to put anything on display beyond respect for rulers in the Muslim world. After critical examination (and much of the reporting on it has been distinctly uncritical), the Ramadan message Mr. Obama delivers is hardly about Ramadan. Like other public diplomacy efforts by the Obama administration, the Ramadan message is one of studied and dutiful vagueness.

He begins by stating that he extends well wishes on “on behalf of the American people, including Muslims in all fifty states”. So far so good. From here, the president speaks essentially to foreign Muslims, not American Muslims. He speaks of philanthropic activities in the United States, highlighting those of American Muslim organizations as well, noting that all religions encourage charitable giving. He then informs viewers of America’s effort to “engage Muslims and Muslim-majority nations on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect,” recalling the thrust of his Ankara and Cairo speeches.

  • The emphasis on common interests and respect grows hollower in light of Obama’s foreign policy: As he has previously, the president states that he seeks to reset America’s relations with the Muslim world on the basis of “mutual interests”. While there is little to argue with in the core of that message — that relationships should be based on common interests and respect — the Obama administration has yet to put anything on display beyond respect for rulers in the Muslim world. The rhetorical afterglow of his Cairo speech has left much good will, but little policy to justify it. Here is where the Obama administration has been most consistent: its dealings with major allies in the Muslim world have been conducted wholly on the basis of national interest without any serious regard played to human rights or the interests of citizens. The recent visit to Washington by the Egyptian president was most illustrative of this. His policy in Afghanistan, as many Muslims will note, has meant more Muslim civilians killed by American forces, now and likely in the future (and this is very much the perception, thought it is certainly not the administration’s aim). The studied vagueness of the Obama Muslim policy (such as it might be called) points in this direction as well. The president’s rhetoric on his “efforts” to reach out to Muslim populations is always so ephemeral as to be pleasing to almost any ear. That America’s “new beginning” with Muslims is based, to hear the president tell it, on generalities and buzz words has been hailed across the American left, many in the American Muslim leadership class and by many in the Muslim world. However, much of this enthusiasm is the result of hope that things might be different going forwards; that the ill-defined “vision” Mr. Obama has for America’s relationship with the Muslim world will be in someway proximate to what people in there would hope it to be. It is not. And this is not necessarily to say the the policy is bad or without merit; it is simply to say that the presentation of it is misleading and as a result likely to be problematic in the future. He hardly even endeavors to encourage Muslim and non-Muslim Americans to work together in a common spirit that might be found in the origins of Ramadan and general American traditions, though he does note that all Americans have engaged in a “summer of service” and emphasize that “we must travel together” to a new beginning.
  • The message essentializes “Muslims” and “Ramadan” into a set of discreet foreign policy issues. Ramadan is an opportunity to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Afghan elections, for Muslims are most concerned with these issues during the month of the greatest fast. It is problematic for the following reason: that it, as does much the rest of the spot, places Muslim concerns and interests solely in terms of essentially Middle Eastern conflicts or problems. The Palestinian problem is undoubtedly a concern for many, many people in the Muslim world. But it is not a defining aspect of Ramadan for most. In a sense this illustrates the self-serving and relatively narrow focus of America’s policy towards the Muslim world. Obviously and understandably it is interested most in those areas where it has a direct interest, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and its assorted Middle Eastern allies, along with major oil producers. It was a policy brief more than a holiday message. Its opening, where he explains the meaning of Ramadan (for those not in the know), appears to almost as an introduction to essentialization. Little in the political issues the president discussed has much to do with Ramadan or its spirit except that they involve Muslims in other countries. So Mr. Obama saw it necessary to speak to American Muslims in the third person in faraway Cairo and he now sees fit to hardly address them at all at Ramadan in their own country. Here the speech offers American Muslims a bit of exceptionalism: where as other Presidential holiday messages are directed primarily at Americans, the Ramadan message is designed for consumption outside of the country, not be American Muslims in the way that the Easter/Passover message was designed for American Christians and Jews. Here it is most evident that the administration is not viewing American Muslims first and foremost as Americans, a trend one observes in his Cairo speech as well.
  • The message is, in itself, of little use for American Muslims. There is one instance in the entire message where the president says anything about American Muslims; the only thing he says to American Muslims is “Ramadan kareem,” but this is debatable, as he says the phrase “on behalf of” Americans American Muslims to the audience, as if the audience were not at American Muslims but only foreigners. At no point does it explicitly address American Muslims on issues of local import or concern. Instead, it essentializes their interests into those of foreign policy. Ramadan, then, is not a holiday for Americans, but one Americans salute; it is a passive, rather than active, holiday in America. In his combined Easter/Passover message, the president said “as we celebrate Passover, Easter and this time of renewal“. No such phrase comes up in the Ramadan message. There is no usage of the first person plural in reference to the breaking of fasts or sharing of time. Here is, perhaps, the influence of domestic “politics,” (what would ordinarily be called “bigotry” or “populist paranoia”). There are those “birthers,” militiamen, conspiracy theorists, et al. who believe that the president is a Muslim or is not legitimately the president of the United States because they’ve yet to see a birth certificate affirming that he was born in the country, or “because he’s black,” for short. This is a perception Obama’s cadres were eager to dispel during the campaign. His desire not to decline invitations to speak to American Muslims at mosques and Islamic centers, his staffers concern that he not be seen with women in the hijab, and other political considerations resulting in outright slights of American Muslims were clarified by Obama staffers as “just politics“. This blogger was told by an Obama campaign staffer in Boston that the soon-to-be president couldn’t be associated with Muslims during the campaign because it wouldn’t help him get elected; after the election, though, Muslims could expect to see Obama with all Americans, including Muslim ones. Thus far this has been poppycock. It has been some eight months and the president has not appeared with any important American Muslim organization (save for a few token staffers held in public light) or at any mosque, not even the Islamic Center in Washington, DC (which is not at all far from the White House, and where his predecessor made appearances). And now, it is deemed best that the president mark Ramadan without recognizing its active and regular celebration in the United States, whilst reminding viewers that he is indeed a Christian, and not one of the Muslim foreigners to whom the message is addressed. In bowing to this bigotry, the message puts rhetorical and ideational distance not only between the United States and Muslims abroad, but between the president and his administration and Muslims in America. Such is the world we live in.

The reactions to the speech have been positive, particularly from American Muslims. One can find glowing endorsements from CAIR and American academics. This is to say, organizations and individuals with no constituency in the general American Muslim population. That said, it accomplished what it sought to, in that it pleased the gibbering classes, not that the president needs to do much work to do that. American news-media has been fascinated that Egyptian date-sellers have named their best dates “Obama,” taking this as a sign of progress in America’s image in the region (although, its price is falling). Islam Online asks readers to offer what they would say to president Obama this Ramadan. The responses are mixed, thus far. Talk in some American mosques reveals that many have yet to have heard of the video, let alone view it. Those who have display a mixed reaction, ranging from delight to indifference; few are negative. To the critical Muslim looking at the world around him, it seems to reach out and say, don’t worry, but this administration plans to continue renditions, while not bothering to consider that mending what was done under the previous administration requires far more than a few glamorous speeches and a “happy Ramadan” video e-card. It requires real policy measures, not tokenism and not “public diplomacy” schemes. Responsible citizens ought to demand as much from their government. All in all the message is not of tremendous importance as of yet. It has very much raised questions among some as to whether the president will release a similar video message on `eid or diwali, perhaps rising to a higher standard than his most recent, and most crude, effort.


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