U.S. president Barack Hussein Obama -- who clearly wished to avoid an association with his Muslim heritage before he was elected, and now boasts about it -- delivered a speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, that offered nothing new in the way of policy options for the U.S., the leading Muslim nations, or the Muslim global community.
The speech did, however, include a number of erroneous and superficial notes that attract immediate attention.
President Obama, a Christian, has adopted the patronizing habit of addressing Muslims with Islamic greetings, citations, and blessings. These include "assalaamu alaykum," a reference to the Holy Qur'an, and the honorific "peace be upon them" when discussing Moses (Musa), Jesus (Isa), and Muhammad.
As Muslims, we consider such rhetorical trimmings by a non-Muslim speaker to be superfluous and ignorant. Muslims do not expect non-Muslims like President Obama to say "assalaamu alaykum," to praise Qur'an in an Islamic idiom, or to add the phrase "peace be upon them" in speaking about God's prophets. These are artifacts of our religion. For non-Muslims to use them is gratuitous and pretentious, and appears bizarre -- as strange as it would be to hear a Muslim cleric refer to God by the Hebrew phrase "baruch Hashem" (blessed be the creator) or say "Jesus is Lord."
A wise man once declared that the beginning of political effectiveness lies in making, not confusing, distinctions. Nothing is to be gained by offering Muslims a mish-mash that blurs the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
As Islam teaches us, the religion of Abraham/Ibrahim is shared by the three monotheistic faiths: "Say (to the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians) we believe in what was revealed to us and revealed to you, our God and your God is one" (Qur'an 29:46).
Further, as Muslims we do not believe in conflicts between God's prophets. Nevertheless, differences do exist between us, and mutual respect, which we seek, is built on recognition of divergences, not their denial.
President Obama's discourse also included some obvious errors.
1. We do not accept as credible the claim, excessive in our view, that American Muslims total seven million people. This is a highly controversial issue and the numbers of our community in the United States need not be exaggerated.
2. President Obama suggested that recent relations between the West and Islam have mainly been distorted by colonialism. But the age of colonialism in the Muslim world ended in the middle of the 20th century. Western colonialism can no longer be blamed for the problems of Muslim societies. Radical interpretations of Islam such as those of the Saudi Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood, Pakistani Deobandis (i.e. the Taliban), fundamentalism in Turkey, and Shia extremism present much greater problems for the West and Muslims alike, than any element of the colonial past.
3. President Obama also stated that Muslims had, in the Cold War, been treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. We consider this claim offensive. The support of the U.S. for the liberation of Afghanistan from Russian occupation was not carried out in a manner indifferent to Muslim feelings. Notwithstanding the problems following the withdrawal of the Russians from Afghanistan, Western support for the worthy resistance of the Afghan Muslims embodied recognition of Afghan aspirations.
4. President Obama referred to the Islamic contribution to "our (i.e. Western) mastery of pens and printing." This is completely false. Pen and ink as we know them existed before the delivery of Qur'an, and, for reasons open to debate, the progress of letterpress printing was delayed in the Islamic countries. These are simple facts of history. There is no point in embellishing history by denying them.
5. President Obama suggested that Indonesia, where he lived as a child, was a country that gained independence through "peaceful and determined" action. It is unfortunate that the world, including most Muslims, has forgotten that Indonesia was born in a revolutionary struggle that extended from 1945 to 1949. It is even worse that this fact is unknown to someone who lived in that country and who cites the ill effects of colonialism.
6. President Obama referred, under the rhetoric of Islamic tolerance, to "the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition." First, Cordoba is located in Andalusia, and is not separate from it. Second, there was no "tolerance" by Muslims during the Spanish National Inquisition, in which Muslims and Jews were subjected to broken promises and brutal persecution as victims of intolerance. This appears as yet another jarring example of a gaffe by the president, involving a widely-known chapter in history. The situation of the three religions in Spain from 711 CE to the mid-17th century, when the last open Muslim believers were driven out of Spain, is a serious and demanding topic that does not lend itself to improvisation.
7. President Obama praised Dubai for its "astonishing progress." We would expect the American president to be aware that Dubai has suffered significantly in the current global economic crisis, and that its artificial prosperity is in danger.
Some may rebuke us for our attention to apparently-minor details in President Obama's speech. But correct handling of such matters cannot be neglected. Sloppy formulations and flattering oratory will not improve the condition of Muslims or non-Muslims. America has the power to effect change everywhere in the world and, especially, to assist in the transition of the Muslim lands to secure enterprise, accountability, and popular sovereignty. This mission, not a campaign of fulsome compliments intended to elicit favorable attitudes toward America among Muslims, is proper to the U.S. presidential administration.
Finally, we are shocked that President Obama gave almost no attention in his Cairo speech to the deterioration of Pakistan under the threat of Talibanization. The possible collapse of Pakistan and victory of reactionary fundamentalism threatens the Muslims of the world with an unparalleled disaster. The U.S. and other countries must formulate a realistic policy to prevent the erection of a nuclear-armed Taliban state in Pakistan.
We agree with President Obama that peace is the goal of all sane humans. But we know that the cause of human rights must also be conducted with arms, not merely with words.
We therefore do not view President Barack Obama's Cairo speech as a significant contribution to dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Executive Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism
Dr Irfan Al-Alawi, International Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism