Analysis of President Obama’s speech to the Muslim World
By Tawfik Hamid- www.Tawfikhamid.com
President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world on June 4th was by all means a historical one. The tension between Islam and the West has become more prominent after 9/11, after too many violent acts have been conducted by people who belong to the Muslim faith. The atmosphere surrounding the speech was nerve racking. On one hand, some in the Western world were afraid that the speech would be too apologetic, as this attitude may actually increase Islamism rather than decrease it. On the other hand, some in the Muslim world were waiting to hear an explicit apology from the President about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others in Muslim communities dreamed that President Obama, who has a Muslim middle name, Hussein, would end U.S. support for Israel as an attempt to have a fresh start with the Islamic world. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and organizations like Hamas were also waiting to hear unconditional support for democratically elected governments so that they would receive U.S. recognition irrespective of what they will do after being in power.
In short, the expectations from the speech were numerous and reflected the desire of these various groups, but it was relatively hard to be too confrontational while addressing over one and a half billion people in the context of a very tense atmosphere at this particular time in history. However, the President did a good job in many parts of his speech.
On the positive side, it was excellent that the President not only insisted on “mutual respect” but also made it clear to the Muslim world that if they expected the U.S. to respect them they must also respect the U.S. in return. He also conveyed a very powerful message that the actions of some Muslims, including terrorism and the abuse of human rights in many parts of the Muslim world, are the main causes of distorting the image of Muslims in the West. The message was clear that it is not America’s fault that Islam has a bad image as many Muslims believe and promote (these acts of violence). President Obama did a fine job of forcing the Muslim world to face reality by clearly stating that the U.S. relationship with Israel is unshakable, that Holocaust denial is wrong, and that Jerusalem is not only for Muslims. It was also important that the President set a new rule that democracy of the ballot without being associated with human rights and without a mechanism that ensures that it will persist after the election is simply meaningless. This was a strong message to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood who want to use democracy only to get to power without consideration for human rights or for the persistence of the democratic process itself.
It was also great that the president emphasized the rights of minorities who live in Muslim majority countries such as Coptic Christians in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon. It is important that the Muslim world realize that, as they expect the U.S. to respect its Muslim minority and their religious rights, they too should know that the U.S. is also expecting the same kind of respect for non-Muslim minorities.
On the other side of the coin there were also some negative aspects of the speech. Firstly, the speech was perceived by many in a way that made Israel look as if it is responsible for all the Palestinian suffering. The reality is that most suffering of the Palestinians is caused by their own leadership that refused to: accept unconditionally the existence of the state of Israel, denounce the promotion of the annihilation of all Jews, and accept that they have created a generation of young Palestinian Muslims who believe that the Jews are sub-human and must be killed on religious basis. This destructive Palestinian attitude – rather than building settlements by Israel – is what causes the Palestinian suffering. As President Obama put it in clear perspective, his responsibility as a president is primarily to protect the American people; hence people must also realize that the Israeli leadership has a primary responsibility to protect its own people. Had the Hamas organization accepted the state of Israel, vouched to stop terrorism and respect the previous international agreements, many – if not most – of the current frictions between both sides would not have existed. Israel proved to the whole world that it is a country that truly wants peace. This happened when Israel returned back all of Sinai to Egypt and got nothing but a peace agreement. It is unfair to put Israel that uses the Arabic language on its street signs to help its Arab minority and make their life more comfortable in the same basket with the Palestinian leaders that burn synagogues and promote the killing of all Jews.
Secondly, the President was ambiguous about how he would work with American Muslims to help them fulfill “Zakat”. The obligation of “paying” the Zakat (or charitable donation of 2.5 percent) to the needy is one of the five pillars of Islam. On the other hand, “collecting” it by an organized group is not one of those pillars. It is important to recall that the organized collection of the Zakat was the main power behind the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate that gave the early Muslims the ability to declare wars on others and to dominate many regions of the world at some stage of history. It is not wise to allow this to happen again and supporting Zakat “collection” through organized channels overseas must be carefully calculated to avoid the misuse of these funds for terrorism or even fueling a broader global religious war. And ultimately, it is important for the President to stress where he will draw the line for religious freedom. Is he going to allow Muslims to stone adulteries women to death? Kill homosexuals, and allow marriage of young girls to respect their ‘religious rights’? The president should have made it clear that he will support the right of Muslims to practice Islam but he must have added unambiguously that this has to be within the borders of U.S. Law and that it must not be in any way a threat to the national security of his nation.
A third negative element of the speech was the use of the story of Isra to show Muslims that Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony in Jerusalem. This particular story is actually used by many Muslims and Islamic scholars to claim superiority of Muslims and Islam over all other nations and religions since the Prophet Mohamed according to the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) was the leader or the “Imam” of all prophets at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The president should have used an example other than Isra to make his point.
(Note: The Al-Aqsa Mosque was traditionally understood as the King Solomon Temple as Islam had not reached this area before Mohamed was there – so how was there a mosque? In fact the Quran did not use the word “Jamaa” or Mosque in this story but instead it used the expression “Masjid” (Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa) which means any worship place – not necessarily Islamic – where people of faith prostrate to God).
A fourth negative element in the speech was choosing the example of ‘colonialism’ while addressing the Muslim world. This example was perceived by many as a form of justification for Islamic extremism and terrorism. The choice of using colonialism as an example was also incorrect for the following reasons. First, colonialism of most Muslim countries ended more than 40 years ago. It is extremely illogical to explain the current phenomenon of Islamic extremism as a reaction to something that has not existed for more than 40 years. The question that many would also ask is: If colonialism was the main cause of Islamic extremism, why didn‘t it happen during the period of colonization itself? And what made Muslims react in this way only after decades after colonialism’s end? The bitterness of some Coptic Christians due to the Muslim invasion of their land and the pain that most Jews were and are still having because of the Holocaust was far more than the suffering of Muslims under any foreign occupation yet the former didn’t use terrorism or the killing innocent people as their path. Second, the theory of colonialism as the cause of terrorism collapses and shatters when it faces the wall of the reality that Muslims kill one another in an extremely barbaric manner as seen in Algeria, Iraq, and Pakistan. Muslims killing one another can’t be explained by ‘colonialism’. It would have been much better if the President did not mention this controversial topic of ‘colonialism’. (Be consistent w/ quotations around the word colonialism.”)
The speech would have also been much better if the President had coupled his promise of preventing negative stereotyping of Muslims in the US by a clear statement that the US also expects that the Muslim world reciprocate and fight negative stereotyping of Jews, Christians, or people of any other faith (such as the Bahia) inside the Muslim world. Preventing negative stereotyping of Islam (not Muslims) can ONLY succeed when Islamic scholars take a clear stand against the violent teaching in the mainstream Islamic books. Attempts to change the ‘image’ of Islam without changing the ‘reality’ of some inhumane elements of Sharia teaching, will simply fail.
Lastly, the president should have realized that defending the Hijab (Islamic head Scarf for women) was probably not very wise in this speech as the Hijab, according the Sharia and the traditional Tafseer (Interpretation) of the Quran, is a discriminatory dress that has to be worn by “free” women to distinguish them from the slaves as the former are “more precious” than the latter. This totally contradicts the president’s view that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail”. It was good just to mention that the U.S. defended the right of Muslim women to wear the Hijab without overstating the issue of female Muslims’ dress code. Many Muslim women do not wear the Hijab as it is simply not one of the five pillars of Islam. It would have been much better if the president had said ‘as the U.S. defended the rights of Muslim women to wear the Hijab, he also expects the Muslim world to defend the rights of Muslim women not to wear it’.
In conclusion, President Obama managed to eloquently convey a powerful message that the Muslim world needed to hear. It made the Muslim world feel that they should share responsibility in the relationship and insisted on “mutual” respect from both sides and not only from non-Muslims toward Muslims. He established the importance of human rights above democracy and upheld the unshakable relationship between U.S. and Israel. Furthermore, he acknowledged the rights of religious minorities in the Muslim word and gave evidence to prove that the U.S. is not against Muslims. However, the speech put the blame of the Palestinian suffering equally on both Israelis and Palestinian leadership without making it clear that the suffering of the Palestinians is predominantly caused by the unwise decisions of the Palestinian leaders and the rhetoric of hatred and violence promoted by their religious scholars. The President could have also been better advised about certain Islamic theological issues such as Zakat, the Hijab and the story of Isra.