Will Obama address the Muslim world or the Arab world?
When 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.
When 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.”
Another 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?