Should Obama address “Muslim world” as a bloc?
President Barack Obama has just pledged to make a new start for United States relations with the Muslim world: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said in his inaugural address. “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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 that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
(Photo: President Obama delivers his inaugural address, 20 Jan 2009/Jason Reed)
It’s not clear what he plans to do. One idea he’s mentioned is to deliver a major speech in a Muslim country in his first year in office. There’s already a lively discussion on the web about where he should go. During his speech, CNN showed a shot of the crowd with some people holding up signs urging him to deliver the speech in Morocco.
Before this train starts rolling, it might be useful to recall that some Islam experts don’t think it’s a good idea for him to deal with “the Muslim world” as a bloc opposed to the West. Two French experts on Islam, Olivier Roy and Justin Vaisse, argued this in a New York Times op-ed piece last month. Here is the full text and below are excerpts.
Do you think it’s helpful for Obama to talk about the Muslim world as a distinct bloc? Would he actually play into Osama bin Laden’s hands by talking about the Muslim world and the West as distinct entities? If so, what should he do?
As Roy and Vaisse wrote:
“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…
“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”.