March 22, 2010
The mere mention of the “Muslim world” in President Obama’s inaugural speech left many fawning over a ‘new beginning’, a ‘new relationship’ with the “Muslim world”. However, President Obama’s full statement was “to the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” His later comments in the surprise interview with Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya did not talk about a ‘new way forward’ but called upon bringing back the relationships “of 20 to 30 years ago”. However, even before our Commander-in-chief reboots the relationship with ‘respect’, it may help to understand exactly what or who ‘the Muslim world’ is and what he means by ‘respect’.
Devout anti-Islamist Muslims who have long dedicated our lives to countering the ascendancy of the ideas of political Islam within the Muslim consciousness, wanted to hear the President speak to dissidents. He did not, save an oblique reference in his inaugural. By making no distinctions between support for autocrats and dissidents, he spoke to maintaining the status quo–the despots in control.
The ‘Muslim world’ is not monolithic. Giving it a simple description as a singular political entity based in a faith practice directly feeds into the language of the theocrats — the Islamists. Islamism is the politico-religious collectivist belief in the primacy of the Islamic state grounded in a dominating legal system based in shar’ia law (Islamic jurisprudence). It is a system which can feign democracy vis-à-vis elections but operates in a supremacist position of Islamic law over all other faith systems and empowers oligarchs (clerics) to write and interpret law. While some Islamists may believe in more peaceful means of ascendancy, whether they are violent or peaceful, the Islamic state is their common goal. At the crux of the ‘contest of ideas’ between the West and the “Muslim world” lie the competing roles of liberty and Islamism.
By ignoring the ideas of liberty and generically reaching out to Muslims, we do the moral cause of freedom a great disservice. We tell them that we will return to the days of empowering their oppressors and ignoring their dissidents all in the name of “mutual interest and respect.”
I am a proud American who happens to be Muslim. As much as I love my faith and raise my children to be faithful Muslims, the concept of a definable “Muslim world” does not speak to me. In fact it offends me. Such a concept can only speak to Islamists who believe in the transnational political collectivism of the Muslim community- the ummah. A nation, like ours, based in religious freedom and separation of church (mosque) and state, cannot and should not abandon our core ideologies at the expense of world opinion. There is a reason millions of Muslims seek to leave that so-called ‘Muslim world’ and come to the United States to practice our faith more freely than in our motherlands. That reason is Jeffersonian democracy and our Establishment Clause which allows every individual to live free of governmental coercion.
President Obama recently mentioned to CNN that “words matter in this situation because one of the ways we’re going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds”. He stated that this strategy will win over ‘moderate Muslims’. It is naïve to think that ‘moderate Muslims’ are simply one singular group defined by a condemnation of terrorism. This belies an understanding of the real internal struggle in this battle. The ‘moderate Muslim’ to those of us who believe in the wisdom of secular liberal democracies is the one who condemns Islamism. Such language continues to augment some of the errors of the Bush administration and paints Muslims as monolithic while ignoring the central conflict between Islamists and non-Islamist Muslims. He ignores the central need for Muslims to defeat Wahhabism, salafism and other pre-modern draconian manifestations of the faith which dominate so much of the power structure of the “Muslim world”. This reform–the only real counterterrorism–will never happen if the leader of the free world cannot even get himself to identify and openly name the ideological challenges we face against Islamists.
It is reckless to simply espouse platitudes on Islam and Muslims while avoiding any of the substantive discussion and debate actually taking place now within the diverse Muslim community. Whether we care to frontally acknowledge them or not, the coercive ideologies which drive Islamists are being countered daily by courageous Muslim free thinkers around the world. We can continue to ignore them while lifting up Islamists domestically and abroad, or we can become a nation of real principles which advocates openly for and defends those who stand up to Muslim autocrats for the rights of minorities and every individual.
While a ‘touchy-feely’ diplomacy policy may bring a short term rise in poll numbers for America abroad, the long term cost to American credibility and to global security is very high. Some say that it is not America’s role to interfere in socio-political change abroad and that Muslims may actually prefer autocracy or theocracy. That is absurd. Just ask the liberty minded Muslims who have been persecuted by the despots of the Muslim world. Ask the liberal feminists, the journalists, the academicians, the artists, small businessmen and businesswomen and any other group advocating for the individual liberty in the Muslim world and they will tell you about their plight. They will tell you about the hope they had in America. We must take sides in this debate rather than talk out of both sides of our mouth. Remaining neutral is accepting the status quo and empowering the autocrats.
In his first week as President, Barack Obama chose to give his first media interview to the Saudi government owned, Al-Arabiya news channel on January 28, 2009. He noted,
“My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries…And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that…. people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well.”
The President certainly seems well-intentioned enough in his positive outreach to Muslims. But when large groups of people and nations who happen to be Muslims cultivate political ideologies which are an anathema to the West, positive outreach actually empowers them exponentially. Muslims are not monolithic. He must distinguish between Islamists and the non-Islamists who are far more likely to work productively with the U.S. due to our shared values. The substance of a future “Obama Doctrine” in the Middle East and the “Muslim world” should not be founded in an ahistorical haste coddling the Saudis and their media yet again. One can hope that Muslims who seek freedom against their oppressors in places like Saudi Arabia can rely upon the bully-pulpit of the President to help the world hear their voices.
The many despotic governments of the so-called “Muslim world” do not deserve such an overture of a diplomatic ‘respect’ initiative. In fact, to their moral Muslim citizens fighting their own corrupt governments, such overtures of respect from the U.S. actually harms American interests when our government is seen ‘respecting’ the thugs and tribes in charge in the ‘Muslim world.’ We can certainly have and should have diplomatic relations with those nations. But we can do so without handing them a respect their governments and their media simply do not deserve.
Certainly, the United States has been losing the battle for public opinion in the “Muslim world.” But do we actually expect to win a media battle on the ground in the ‘Muslim world” against the corrupt state-run media of autocrats and monarchs or against media run by close-minded Islamists? It is less than helpful for our new President to convey a mea culpa. Repairing the image of America which they have created in the Muslim world, will be far more complex and evolutionary than the platitudes the President conveyed. President Obama needs to understand that while most Muslims in the Muslim world hate their governments, they still end up believing a lot of what is dished out to them by state-controlled media. It’s a contradiction but a reality. We cannot step back from publicly advocating for the rights of dissidents, women, and other oppressed groups in those societies no matter how much we offend the oppressors.
There are other deep inconsistencies we cannot ignore. For example, if the U.S. is to maintain a moral high ground, we need to push the Muslim world to abandon the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights which arises out of political Islam (Islamism) and the interests of autocrats. We rather need to ask them to reaffirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights based in universal religious freedom and the inherent dignity of individual rights. More recently the U.N. continued to try and turn itself into an Inquisition for the protection of Islamist clerics while shutting down free speech. Silence in response to the OIC’s (Organization of the Islamic Conference) attempt to create blasphemy laws in the U.N. speaks volumes to the deep hypocrisy from the United States which should rather be a beacon for free speech even if it offends our Muslim friends. President Obama will not be able to participate in this moral struggle for free speech while also telling them that we mutually respect their governments.
The President’s silence on the transgressions of humanity by members of the OIC ends up endorsing their human rights abuses, economic paralysis, and disrespect for the individual freedoms of their citizens. He speaks of those citizens who are “poor and lacking opportunity”, but yet avoids mention of free markets, liberal educational institutions, the need to reform theocratic Islam, and the dangers of the supremacism of shar’ia. He makes no mention of the pervasive plight of liberty-minded women — a majority of the population who he has ignored thus far. Zeyno Baran recently reminded us of the need for more light upon their plight on these pages. President Obama makes no mention after praising King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia of the laws in his nation which suffocate every woman and kill any attempts at liberal intellectual growth. Many Muslims who want reform and want change in the “Muslim world” will see through this and will not find warmth in the message of President Obama. Let us hope that this has been a soft opening and that he soon ups the ante for American support.
President Obama invoked the respect we gave the “Muslim world’ “twenty to thirty years ago” as an exemplary period. One cannot help but ask again to which Muslims he is speaking? The dictators in charge at that time were as they are today for the most part either secular Arab fascistic nationalists or tribal monarchs. They do not represent their people and the assumption that they do will destroy American credibility the same way our assistance of dictators and monarchs did during the Cold War twenty to thirty years ago. He is invoking a period which did lead to success in the Cold War but our “Muslim world” policy was a disaster. Many of our credibility problems today stem from our support for many of the dictators in the Middle East including the ascendancy of Saddam Hussein.
It would have been nice to hear the President comment on how sad it is that the holiest site for Muslims, rests in a nation controlled by draconian Wahhabi laws enforced in the name of Islam. As tough as this may sound, what the ‘Muslim World’ needs is tough love not unconditional love. He should ask, the man who he called the ‘courageous King’ to allow the building of just one church in his nation. Once reality sets in, President Obama is going to realize that you cannot be everyone’s friend abroad especially when we protect the oppressed from their oppressors. It seems that we are reverting to the same playbook in history where we care less about the plight of women and minorities in Muslim majority lands and more about polls and stabilizing our oil prices.
It seems that the President is doing his own Public diplomacy continuing where Karen Hughes left off. Terror is a means to an ends for groups who share a vision of an Islamic state poised against the West. Whether violent or nonviolent, the goal of the Islamic state is shared by all Islamists. Unless the President can articulate the harm of the Islamist movement distinct from the ability of Muslims to practice their faith of Islam in freedom, he cannot make any progress in this war. Surely, a ‘post-racial’, ‘post-partisan’ Presidential candidate can come up with an articulate way to talk to Muslims about the dangers of Islamism without insulting their personal faith practice of spiritual Islam.
Political Islam is a growing phenomenon hatched from a pre-modern theology and fertilized by Arab fascism. It continues to spawn militant and non-militant offshoots across the globe. Sadly, there are no signs that President Obama has any plans to venture into this debate yet. There was a glimmer of hope when he intimated that the United States will not accept blame for acts of terror or the networks which generate them. There was also hope in his statement during his inaugural that, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” But there are no signs at all yet that President Obama is willing to take the stances against Islamism necessary to play a role in shaping that history. Sadly, if there is ever going to be a post-despotism, post-Islamism, post-‘Muslim world’-Muslim world, it will probably happen in spite of American diplomacy not because of our diplomacy.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander, a community activist, and a physician in private practice.