Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?

June 2, 2009

obama-faceWhen President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it’s being called a speech “to the Muslim world” or “to the world’s 1.x billion Muslims” (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he’s chosen — Cairo — and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East.

(Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)

The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?

There is such an important overlap between the Arab and the Muslim worlds that it is hard to disentangle them. The Palestinian issue concerns Muslims around the world, but with varying intensity depending partly on whether it figures in regional politics or stands as a more distant symbol of oppression against Muslims. Politics can also poison Muslim relations with Jews, which can range from bitter enmity to interfaith cooperation depending on where, when and how one looks. The U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may be justified in Washington as operations against international terrorism, but in Muslim countries they are often seen as attacks on Muslims and Islam.

cairo-at-duskWhen this speech was first announced as an address to the Muslim world, I blogged here and here that he should deliver it in Turkey or Indonesia because they were doing more to reconcile Islam and modern democracy than any Arab state. “As a politician from a country where church-state relations are a lively issue, one could expect him to ask what message his choice will send concerning the political relationship with religion in the state he chooses,” I wrote.

(Photo: Cairo at dusk, 14 April 2009/Tarek Mostafa)

The pressing question of how Islam relates to politics and society in the 21st century has an important religious component, because any adaptation or development would have to come from within a tradition that looks to religious authority to bless important changes. A speech addressing this would necessarily have to deal with religion, which is after all what Muslim countries have in common regardless of their geography, ethnicity, languages, traditions or politics.

Articles looking ahead to the speech focus mostly on the political, i.e. the Middle East peace process. Reuters has run a long curtainraiser today entitled “Obama to address tough issues in speech to Muslims” that touches on the Middle East, oil and international terrorism (BTW “speech to Muslims” is a neat way to get around the problem under discussion here). Washington also ran “Q+A: Why is Obama speech to Muslim world important?” and an earlier analysis on May 31 entitled “PREVIEW-Obama speech to Muslims key to new U.S. strategy.” That analysis mixed the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, saying “President Barack Obama will try to repair America’s tarnished image in the Muslim world on Thursday, as he looks to mobilize support for restarting Middle East peacemaking and thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

malay-mosque-fireworksAnother article by our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon, “Muslims want more than fine talk from Obama,” shows how complex all this is. Surveying opinion across the Muslim world, he found the Palestinian issue stood out as their main concern. But wider issues also emerged, for example a general desire to feel the U.S. president respects Muslims and Islam — a message Obama has already been sending. As for the venue, it seems that Arabs found the choice of Cairo very appropriate while a Malaysian and an Iranian Lyon quoted thought it was a bad choice.

(Photo: Fireworks at Malaysia’s Putra Mosque near Kuala Lumpur, 31 Aug 2003/Bazuki Muhammad)

In one of its pre-speech articles, the New York Times wrote that “when President Obama delivers a much-anticipated speech in Cairo, he will be addressing so many audiences, and seeking to advance so many agendas, that even his oratorical gifts are likely to be taxed.”

How do you think Obama should pitch his speech? Is it possible to juggle both the immediate political concerns of the Middle East with wider issues concerning the whole Muslim world? Or is it impossible not to?


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Obama will address both the Arabs and the Muslims in Cairo, Egypt, because the U.S. foreign policies in thelast 60 years has created three Arab and Muslim powder kegs:a) The Arab powder keg since the creation of Israel and the displacement and disfranchisement of Palestinians since 1948, and the disfranchisement and political suppression of Arab citizens by pro-American royals, and despots, like Hosni Mubarak, masquerading as democrats while tens of thousands of their opponents are rotting in jails. Oh, yes, Mubarak released Egyptian opposition leader Nour for the time Obama will be there, and he will throw him back in jail as soon as Obama flies out.b) The Muslim Middle East powder keg. Starting with the overthrow of popular Iranian leader -a Hugo Chavez alike for that time- Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 by the CIA, and the installation of Shah Reza Pahlevi as a U.S. puppet despot that squandered the Iranian oil wealth for 26 years until Iranian revolution in 1979 dethroned him, and freed about 25.000 of his Iranian opponents that were rotting in prisons. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter toasted Shah Reza Pahlevi at an official gala in Washington as “an island of stability in the Middle East,” a title that the U.S. has bestowed on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak now. That is why Obama will deliver his Arab-Muslim sermon in Egypt. At some point in the future, the Egyptians will follow the Iranian course to a democratic and Islamic regime, and at some point in the future another U.S. president will try to make amends with Egyptians – like Obama tries to do now with Iran as a redemption gesture for the Pahlevityranny of 26 years that the U.s. had imposed on them.c) The Central Asia powder keg. Our involvement in Afghanistan has created a “by U.S.demand” civil war in Pakistan that has displaced millions of Pakistanis, while the civilian losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan wars by far outpace the losses of the combatants. Corruption in both Afghan and Pakistani governments is the worst in the planet. U.S. News & World Report -for example- reported at its June 2009 issue that when an Afghan goes to a government office to pay his electric bill, he is directed to 8 different desks and has to pay bribes before he can pay his bill. In Pakistan, a former ISI officer told CBS “60 Minutes”, May 31, 2009, that “there is a huge wave of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, and that president Asif Zardari is a puppet of the U.S.” Do the Afghans and Pakistanis consider the U.S. puppet regimes in their countries assomething they can live with – if they could only modify their Muslim religious beliefs? If they did, they wouldn’t have been 2 wars going on in Central Asia right now. Muslims consider western style democracy as decadent, and good only for those who savor booze, drugs, crime, prostitution, public indecency, widespread public corruption, and lack of any morals. And with those goods on his basket, Obama won’t find any takers in the Muslim world.On the political U.S. objectives in the Arab and Muslim world. Would the Egyptians, the Afghans and the Pakistanis believe Obama when he speaks to them in Cairo, that he tries to help them establish and strengthen democracy in their countries and the region, or will they hold on to their beliefs that Obama wants to create “Islands of Stability” in their countries that will be reminiscent of the former Shah Reza Pahlevi regime in Iran? Obama has become a sort of a novelty presidential celebrity at home, and he feels he can carry that magic in the Arab and Muslim world. But the Arabs and the Muslims have been trampled by U.S. and its ally Israel for 60 years in Middle East, and they are trampled right now in Afghanistan and Pakistan And U.S. actions in both Middle East and Central Asia speak louder that the Obama forthcoming words in Cairo about peace, democracy, and Muslim terrorism as defined by the U.S. and Israel. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by Nikos Retsos | Report as abusive

dr retsos: are you implying that the muslim world was tyranny-free until the birth of israel? they have done a fair amount of rights-trampling, especially in the name of islam but also under the baathists in iraq and syria, for a few centuries. – ask your coethnic rum friends about treatment of greeks – as well as jews, arameans, armenians, and rroma – in turkey. the wisdom of american foreign policy is certainly open to question, but laying the ills of that region at the feet of uncles sam and shmuel is more than a trifel simplistic.

Posted by jd | Report as abusive

This first comment is exactly why whatever Obama says won’t matter.The problem goes back to more then a few centuries. Islam was close to conquering the known world taking as far as the Iberian peninsula, all anceint Christendom and culturally running deep into Mongol Asia in 1200-1300 AD. Saladin’s defeat of the second crusades certainly had tipped the power of Islam dramatically in their favor. They were running over those different then them 1400 years ago if it wasn’t for the black plague we’d probably all be Muslim today.But to talk about respect and point to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, etc. as being “U.S. created” is very narrow when there is a 1400 year history here that raises serious concerns. This isn’t to say that the U.S. couldn’t have done things better, like allowed all the Middle East to be ruled by Communism. Maybe they would have liked how Stalin and Lenin treated their religions better!As long as Islam takes the kind of revisionist and one-side mentality noted in the first comment what Obama says won’t matter a lick. To point at America an infant nation in light of Islam’s 1400 years of existence is the type of mentality that will continue to burden and create strife and emnity. Especially, when American’s are at least TRYING to do the right thing; however, befuddled we do it.In the US we have a culture of equality. We go to marriage counselors to help us with our marriage. The counsolers say both husband and wife must give equally. Part of having a successful relationship on any level is equal give and take. Islam’s supremacy doctrine and psychology of unfalleness and superiority come out so strongly. I don’t see how a country with a divorce rate like America’s can tolerate being the wife of Islam accept by the sword. And while we’re willing to try we aren’t willing to submit.

Posted by The Freedom Thinker | Report as abusive

Obama can say what he wants to whom he wants. Those who claim the Jewish people stole the land once more known as Isreal can say what they will. What men say has no effect. GOD said he would gather his people from all the nations and restore them to the land he gave them. And he said they will never be removed from there again. So it is written so it is done. GOD shall have the last word. Amen.

Posted by sparks | Report as abusive

The president’s Introduction gives a prize to those countries in previous governments have called for terrorist states.In addition, he bypasses the agreement that was customary until now; do not negotiate with a terrorist organization.He is throwing all the foreign policy of previous presidents.Now, he taught them that it is better to be terrorists to get more.In addition, he is not acting according to general protocol.For example his sudden entrance into the room while a formal meeting between the Minister Ehud Barak and the National Security Advisor Jim Jones.Not even care to kick his best friends.What this actually means.Does that mean that he respects the previous presidents?Does that mean that he is loyal to the heritage of America?Is it helping to promote democracy in the world?Does that mean any one can count on America?.Concluded the conclusions aloneOfer, Israel

Posted by Ofer | Report as abusive

[…] HuffPo’s Cairo-based contributor says nobody really trusts you.  Reuters wonders if you even know the difference between Arabs and Muslims, or that there even is one?  […]

Posted by Oh, So NOW He’s A Muslim? « Cinie’s World | Report as abusive

its easy for people to sit there and give history lessons and give suggestions to muslims on how they should live their lives and how their religions needs to change, while completely ignoring the blunders and crimes commited by the U.S and the west. Look at the oppresive regimes we have supported over the last few decades and still continue to support. we supported the shah of iran, we put sadaam in charge in iraq, we continue to support some of the most oppresive regimes in the world in places like sauidia arabia, egypt, and jordan.we ruined iraq for no reason, we continue to launch strikes in pakistan, and we supply israel with bombs and guns to attack the palestinains. hmm, its no wonder the muslim world hates us.we think of islam as a radial religion, but isn’t the creation of israel based of a religious belief?? that god has promised the jews the holy land?? don’t we the bombings of abortion clinics and the murder of dr. by right wing christian fanatics? the murders of skihs, muslims and christians, by hindu extremist. these things happen routinely yet are classified as isoloated incidents.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

@ the murders of skihs, muslims and christians, by hindu extremist. these things happen routinely yet are classified as isoloated incidents.- Posted by sidneySidney: Could you give me instances where Sikhs were killed other than 1984 Blue Star that was against terrorists (like Lal Masjid in Islamabad) and 1984 riots. I just want to know how “ROUTINELY” do they happen. Did you miss in rush that Hindus have been killed-21000 deaths in terrorism in Punjab where Hindus were the primary targer. Just want to know if it is carefully left out or you were in some rush.Do not act like an expert if you are not.There are sensitive minds on Reuters who will believe all what you say. So check what you are feeding out there.All said and done nothing justifies violence by anyone–Nations or terrorists.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

well if you have been keeping up with recent events you would have known that just recently a famous sikh preacher was murdered by a hindu extremist.and contrary to your beliefs, readers of reuters are not the type to believe what is stated in comments. perhaps you might be the type to do so, but majority are not so simple minded. on another note, you didn’t even seem to try and defend about the attacks on christians and muslism, so even if was wrong about the sikhs i’m assuming that you agree with me about the attacks on muslims and christians.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

@sidney: The sikh preacher was not killed by a hindu extremist but this was due to conflict between two different sects of sikhism and had nothing to do with hindus.

Posted by venkat | Report as abusive