Obama's Small Muslim World

Barack Obama made an unwise commitment during his campaign. Actually he made quite a number of them, but this column will have to settle for dealing with just one:

Candidate Obama promised to deliver a major speech to the Muslim world from a Muslim capital. On June 4, President Obama will make good on that promise in Cairo.

What could go wrong with this heartwarming outreach? Begin with this question: Does the President regard Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as belonging to the Muslim world, yes or no?

If yes--if "the Muslim world" includes everyone who happens to be born to a family of Muslim origin regardless of his or her own personal belief, and if it includes liberals of Muslim origin, secularists of Muslim origin, atheists of Muslim origin--then it seems almost pointless to speak to them all as a distinctive group.

The very act of speaking to individuals of Muslim origin as Muslims concedes a point that an American president should be wary of conceding.

The more likely answer however is no--Rushdie and Ali are not intended. Almost inevitably, the President's speech will address the most anti-Western, the most militant, the most radical Muslims. The decision to speak "to" the Muslim world is a decision to speak "to" these rejectionists.

Look at the choice of venue. The President could have spoken from Indonesia or Bangladesh--each of them home to more Muslims than live in the Arab Middle East. In Indonesia and Bangladesh, the prevailing forms of Islam are moderate and tolerant. Each of these countries is working to build a more democratic society, more connected to the global economy.

Instead the President chose Egypt. True, Egypt is an important U. S. ally. Egypt is also the intellectual centre of the most radical forms of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood originated in Egypt, as did Sayyid Qutb, the ideologist of modern jihad. This is the country of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ayman al-Zawahiri. It would be extremely odd to speak from Egypt and not take such men and their ideas into account.

But to do so has an ironic side effect: The very fact that an American president talks about these extremist Muslims--and tries to talk through them to reach their sympathizers--validates them as the most important and significant of Muslim individuals. It risks conceding that these men are somehow the most "authentic" of Muslims, and that their anger and alienation somehow matters more than the desire of other Muslims to live in a more secular society or to participate more fully in the global economy.

Radical Muslims have constructed a narrative in which Islam is oppressed and colonized by the West, Muslims have real and reasonable grievances against the West and any acrimony between Muslims and the West is due to the actions of the West.

Perhaps the President will dispute this narrative. But can he really go to Cairo and dismiss the narrative altogether?

Can he say that the problems of Muslim majority countries have little if anything to do with the West--that if they are victimized it is by their own leaders, if they are backward it is due to their own rejection of modern ways of life?

The very act of speaking to individuals of Muslim origin as Muslims concedes a point that an American president should be wary of conceding. No president would ever give a speech to "the Christian world." He'd take for granted that Christian identity is personal and private, not collective and public. He'd remember that Christianmajority countries contain non-Christian minorities, entitled to equal respect. He'd understand that many in the Christian majority define their identity in terms other than religion; and that the freedom to choose how to define oneself is one of the fundamental principles of a free society.

Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood insist that Islam is inescapably public and political. But why would an American president agree? Yet if he speaks to "the Muslim world" how can he avoid agreeing?

The Pakistani scholar who wants to be free to study the origins of the Koran without fear of violence if he reaches an unorthodox conclusion--isn't he part of the Muslim world too? The Saudi woman who would like to wear jeans in public? The Iranian youth who would like to convert to the Bahai faith? The Senegalese merchant who prefers the movies to the mosque? The French student who celebrates Ramadan with his parents and Christmas with his girlfriend? Or his boyfriend?

Will the President talk to them? If not--it would be better to stay home.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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