Lots of advice for Obama on dealing with Muslims and Islam

December 22, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has been getting a lot of advice these days on how to deal with Muslims and Islam. He invited it by saying during his campaign that he either wanted to convene a conference with leaders of Muslim countries or deliver a major speech in a Muslim country “to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular”. But where? when? why? how? Early this month, I chimed in with a pitch for a speech in Turkey or Indonesia.  Some quite interesting comments have come in since then.

(Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)

Two French academics, Islam expert Olivier Roy and political scientist Justin Vaisse argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday that Obama’s premise of trying to reconcile the West and Islam is flawed:

Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.

Instead, Mr. Obama, the first “post-racial” president, can do better. He can use his power to transform perceptions to the long-term advantage of the United States and become a “post-civilizational” president. The page he should try to turn is not that of a supposed war between America and Islam, but the misconception of a monolithic Islam being the source of the main problems on the planet: terrorism, wars, nuclear proliferation, insurgencies and the like.

Also on Sunday, the Istanbul newspaper Sunday’s Zaman ran a piece by sociologist Dogu Ergil who spelled out what he thought “moderate Muslims” expected of Obama.

(Photo: Blue Mosque in Istanbul, 9 Dec 2008/Tan Shung Sin)

Moderate or non-ideological Muslims expect Mr. Obama to support democratic trends in their countries, but not to push them from above using ruling elites that will never adopt a democratic agenda but rather will simply play for time, making only cosmetic changes. This will, in turn, further reinforce the power of autocratic regimes that are threatened by genuine democracy.

Muslim moderates look at religion as a cultural affair, wanting to render it autonomous of politics so that it will be protected from political power and in the same way, preventing it from seeking political power. So they want the Obama administration to press their governments to enact reforms that will pave the way to democratic politics and legal changes that will allow for more individual freedoms. They do not want a hypocritical stance from an America which advocates democracy but supports the most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for the sake of oil deals and other strategic ends. The Bush administration set a very bad example of paying lip service to democracy, which, in fact, worked as a vehicle to blackmail Arab regimes and served America’s strategic interests.

Michael Fullilove at the Brookings Institution made a pitch for an Obama speech in Indonesia in the New York Times while several Moroccan blogs have been running a campaign (including a petition with a long list of reasons) to have him speak there. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an exiled Egyptian sociologist and human rights who is a visiting professor at Harvard and Indiana universities, made the case for Indonesia or Turkey in the Washington Post.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador in the United States and Britain, has a long list of suggestions for a reformed U.S. policy towards the Muslim world in the Harvard International Review.  The list is fairly extensive, although it would have been even more informative if it had included suggestions for what should change in the Muslim world.

(Photo: Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, 21 Dec 2007/Mohsin Raza)

How Obama manages issues in the Muslim world will determine the success or failure of his foreign policy…

In the Muslim world … perceptions have been shaped by decades of uneven handed policies and by US double standards that placed the security of Israel and the need for cheap oil above considerations of international law and justice for the Palestinians. In essence, Muslims regard US policies as responsible for the trust gap between the United States and the Islamic world. In the West, opinions concerning the cause for the gap with the Muslim world are more mixed. The most common view attributes this rift in relations not only to US policies but also to factors internal to the Muslim world– to the weakness and contradictions in those societies and particularly to the democratic deficit, which allows radicals to build support for their cause. This, in fact, inspires the idea that the United States should lead efforts to restructure the Muslim world. Irrespective of the reality, both perspectives urge the need to review and recast US foreign policy.

My vote for the most interesting argument goes to Roy and Vaisse, who ask the basic question of what role religion actually plays in the big issues facing Obama.

The truth is, Islam explains very little. There are as many bloody conflicts outside of regions where Islam has a role as inside them. There are more Muslims living under democracies than autocracies. There is no less or no more economic development in Muslim countries than in their equivalent non-Muslim neighbors. And, more important, there exist as many varieties of Muslims as there are adherents of other religions. This is why Mr. Obama should not give credence to the existence of an Islam that could supposedly be represented by its “leaders”.

(Photo: Olivier Roy, 4 Dec 2007/Charles Platiau)

Who are these leaders that President Obama would convene anyway? If he picks heads of state, he will effectively concede Osama bin Laden’s point that Islam is a political reality. If he picks clerics, he will put himself in the awkward position of implicitly representing Christianity — or maybe secularism. In any case, he would meet only self-appointed representatives, most of them probably coming from the Arab world, where a minority of Muslims live.

Do you think Obama should launch a special initiative aimed at the Muslim world, or, as Roy and Vaisse argue, assert that “American values are universal and do not suffer any kind of double standard, and that they could be shared by atheists, Christians, Muslims and others”?


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I will not refute you. You need to get out of the defensive corner you have painted yourself into. After all, the search of truth demands jettisoning quite a lot of the beliefs one grew up with. For a true Hindu, life is a series of questions. There are no Revealed Truths like in other religions – even our idea of God is patently what we have thought up ourselves. The quest is the only truth. So you might want to get started with the Ko, Kutah, Ka stream.

We also need to remember that all nations/communities without distinction have committed crimes against humanity. The root cause of all these was hubris – the perpetrators of evil thought that they were superior to the victims; to them, they were Untermensch, Chandalas, barbarians, infidels. This is what causes exaltation in the ghettos of Gaza when a suicide bomber blows him/herself up. This is what caused the now discredited WMDs. AND Hiroshima-Nagasaki. ( Please remember at that time, that the Japanese were totally defeated, had no munitions to keep fighting any further, and were desperately asking for a face-saving formula. Would the Bomb have been used, in the same circumstances, if the antagonists had been white?) Cringing in shame for the evils of our fore-fathers is not called for. Learning from them is. The human race has to grow up sometime rather than keep on remembering old wrongs and justifying new wrongdoing.

We also have a saying in Malayalam – this is a language spoken by people in a small South Indian province called Kerala- which translates roughly as ” the pickle is saltier than salt itself”. This is an insult. It is gratuitous. And it comes after reading your earlier posts. I do hope you get some time to do a bit of research on cluster bombs.

Posted by Jayadevan | Report as abusive

As an American Christian, yet having spent three years in Egypt and having many Muslim friends, what have I learned? First of all, to me, and my ideas are subjective only, Islam is one of the three great faiths, Islam believes in Jesus and is a major prophet in the Islamic faith. Islam holds the Virgin Mary (Maryam) very dearly and Islam like other religions has a Prophet.

One treats any religion with the utmost of respect.

I never saw the faith of Islam as holding women or minorities in contempt; I saw that as the problem of the society at large.

As for VIOLENCE, One can cherry-pick any statement from the Old Testament and in isolation say, see, Christianity supports violence, supports fire and brimstone, supports stoning of enemeies. One must read the Holy Bible, as one must read the Holy Qu’ran in its entirety and major explications of both texts and then judge.

The problem with ANY RELIGION is who does the preaching and who does the listening, and do the listeners act out on what they think they are understanding? A complex sentence, yes, but read it over again, and you will see what I mean.

Just as Christianity has its splits, its divisions, its adherents, so dies Islam (Shia and Sunni)

To my many Muslim friends in Egypt, in Syria, in Morocco and in Tunisia, I say Salummu Aleykum. May Peace be upon you all.