Now here’s an interesting question. The New York Times reports that President-elect Barack Obama wants to make “a major foreign policy speech from an Islamic capital during his first 100 days in office.” But from which one? As NYT staffer Helene Cooper explains, it’s a question that’s fraught with diplomatic, religious and personal complications. After a day of calling around Washington, she found a consensus:
It’s got to be Cairo. Egypt is perfect. It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there. It has got the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has been embraced by a wide spectrum of the Islamic world, including the disenfranchised and the disaffected. (Photo: Obama image in Jakarta, 25 Oct 2008/Dadang Tri)
That’s a diplomatic answer, the kind you’d expect to get inside the Washington Beltway. Let’s look at this more from the point of view of religion. If the American president gives a major speech in a Muslim country, it will be seen as an indirect comment on the type of mosque-state relations found in that country. It’s not for him as a non-Muslim to endorse a certain type of Islam over another, say Sunni over Shi’ite. But 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.
There is no obvious answer. There are Muslim states with close or distant links to violence in the name of religion, which should rule them out from the start. There are Muslim states that do not respect full equality for women, religious minorities and other groups — that’s a strike against them. Others Muslim states seem stuck in a time warp, or are politically unacceptable because they are not even barely democratic. This is where the diplomats start to see some daylight. But there is also overlapping among these groups, so no model candidate emerges. The world is a complicated place, an insight that should now return to U.S. foreign policy after eight years of denying this reality.
Seen that way, the diplomats Cooper consulted seem too cautious. While there is no ideal candidate, two Muslim countries seem to represent more of what Obama might want to see than Egypt — Indonesia and Turkey. On Indonesia, Cooper writes “the very fact that Mr. Obama once lived and went to school there would make choosing it seem like cheating.” Says who? It’s the most populous Muslim nation in the world and it has an Islamist problem that it is fighting better than many others.