Why should the president of the United States address the "Muslim world", as
Barack Obama will do in Egypt this Thursday? What would happen if the leader of
a big country addressed the "Christian world"? Half the world would giggle and
the other half would sulk.
There is no such thing as a Christian world, of course; there hasn't been since
the Great Schism of 1054, even less so since the Reformation. Europe's nations
agreed at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to subordinate the confessional to
political sovereignty. America, the new model of a nation, kept church separate
from state. To utter the words "Christian world" would
persuade the Muslim world that a foul conspiracy was afoot, perhaps a new
There is no "Christian world" to address because Christianity has become a
private religion of personal conscience. Few Christian denominations aspire to
the status of state religion; the Catholic Church abandoned earthly power at
the Second Vatican Council in 1965. No Christian denomination aspires to world
power. A "Christian world", in short, is not even a fantasy, let alone a fact,
and to pronounce the words would be an absurdity.
What does it mean, though, to address the "Muslim world"? As a matter of
practice, the Muslim world is just as fractured as the Christian world, even
more so in the absence of any religious authority like the Catholic Church,
which claims doctrinal authority over a billion people. Muslim religious
authority is exercised ad hoc. The quasi-animist Islam of Sumatra and the
Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia have about as much in common as Midwest
Methodists and Nigerian Pentecostals. But there is a great gulf fixed between
the terms, "Christian world", and "Muslim world". No denomination of Islam will
abandon its pretensions at official status, and all aspire to world power.
To speak to the "Muslim world", is to speak not to a fact, but rather to an
aspiration, and that is the aspiration that Islam shall be a global state
religion as its founders intended. To address this aspiration is to breathe
life into it. For an American president to validate such an aspiration is
madness. America is not at war with Islam, unless, that is, Islam were to take
a political form that threatens America's global interests. These interests
include friendly relationships with nation-states that have a Muslim majority,
such as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. To address "the Muslim world" is to conjure
up a prospective enemy, for global political Islam only can exist as the enemy
of the nation-states with which America has allied.
Obama, the White House press office told reporters last week, will address
among other issues the Arab-Israeli issue. What does it imply to raise this
issue in a speech to the "Muslim world"? Nearly 700 million of the world's 1.4
billion Muslims live in Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, countries
which share no linguistic or cultural affinities with the Arabs, and have only
religion in common.
They have no strategic interest whatever in the outcome of war or peace in the
Levant. Their only possible interest is religious. Does the United States
really believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is religious in origin? If
that is not so, why should South Asian or East Asian Muslims care about the
conflict to begin with? Why should the United States address concerns that it
does not consider valid to begin with? And if it is religious in origin, what
specifically makes the conflict religious?
If it really were the case that the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs are fighting
over religious matters, then the theological Muslim position is the one
represented by Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, namely that a
Jewish state on territory once held by the ummah (Muslim community) is
an outrage to Islam and never can be accepted.
For the US president to address the "Muslim world" on the subject of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by implication frame the matter in religious
terms, is to define the matter as a jihad, and to rule out a peaceful solution
- unless, of course, the president were to tell Muslims to abandon their
religious scruples in order to accept the existence of the state of Israel.
Excluding the unlikely possibility that Obama will declare himself to be a
Muslim and claim religious authority in matters affecting Muslims everywhere,
that is not going to happen in Cairo this Thursday.
It is quite possible for the state of Israel to live in peace with
nation-states whose population is mainly Muslim, to be sure. Israel has done so
since 1975 with Egypt and Jordan, and has until recently maintained excellent
relations with Turkey. Until the Ruhollah Khomeini revolution of 1979, Israel
was an ally and arms supplier of Iran. As a matter of national interest, many
Muslim-majority countries may seek peaceful and even friendly relations with
the Jewish state, irrespective of what the dictates of Islamic theology might
be. Rather than addressing nations with national interest, though, Obama is
addressing Muslims, over the heads as it were of majority-Muslim nation states.
Even though the Koran mentions Jerusalem not once (against 832 times in the
Hebrew Bible and 161 times in the New Testament), later Muslim tradition makes
Jerusalem a Muslim holy place. No Muslim religious authority in Asia or Africa
can or will rule that Islam can tolerate a Jewish state in Palestine with its
capital in Jerusalem. There are a few Muslim voices in Europe and the US
favorably disposed to co-existence with the Jewish state, but they are whispers
against the roar of an ocean.
Obama and his advisors seem to have taken to heart the view of Iraq's former
defense minister Ali Allawi, whose book The Crisis In Islamic Civilization
I reviewed some weeks ago (Predicting
the death of Islam Asia Times Online, May 5.)
Allawi, who had been the Central Intelligence Agency's preferred candidate for
president of Iraq under the George W Bush administration, writes off the
nation-state as a political vehicle in the Islamic world. As I noted, he cites
Pew Institute polls showing that people in Islamic countries view themselves as
Muslims first, and citizens second: "Large majorities of Muslims in countries
as diverse as Pakistan (79%), Morocco (70%) and Jordan (63%) viewed themselves
as Muslims rather than citizens of their nation-states. Even in countries such
as Turkey with its long secular history as a nation-state, 43% viewed
themselves as Muslims in the first place, although 29% saw themselves as
citizens of the nation-state."
The dream of a new caliphate is unattainable, Allawi argued, but the
Western-style nation-state can only be a coffin for the culture of Islam.
Muslims either will "live an outer life which is an expression of their
innermost faith" and "reclaim those parts of their public spaces which have
been conceded to other world views over the past centuries", he wrote, or "the
dominant civilizational order" will "fatally undermine whatever is left of
Muslims' basic identity and autonomy". Allawi is a Shi'ite with close ties to
Iran, whose vision for the region centers on the transnational bloc of 200
million Shi'ite Muslims and their aspirations from Lebanon through Pakistan.
A gauge of the absurdity of an American president addressing "the Muslim world"
was the difficulty in finding a venue for Thursday's speech. Egypt's President
Hosni Mubarak remains one of America's closest allies in the Muslim world, and
the head of the most populous, important Arab state, and one that has a peace
treaty with Israel. Egypt was the natural choice, but it called down criticism
on Obama for validating a regime that suppresses political opposition. The
opposition it suppresses most brutally comes from the Muslim Brotherhood (the
Egyptian parent organization of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch), the
first and still the most important Islamist organization.
By addressing the "Islamic world" from Cairo, Obama lends credibility to the
Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other advocates of political Islam who demand
that Muslims be addressed globally and on religious terms - in
contradistinction to nationalists such as Mubarak. Rather than buttress a loyal
ally, Obama's speech undermines him on his home ground. That is a lose-lose
There is a way to rescue the situation, which I now propose to Obama in good
faith: change the venue to New Delhi. After all, India's Muslim population is
the world's third-largest at 158 million, just under Pakistan's 175 million and
Indonesia's 200 million. Speaking from an Indian podium, Obama could say
something like this:
I have come hear to address the Muslims of the
world on Indian soil to emphasize that there is life after the end of Islam's
status as a state religion. As a minority, Indian Muslims have had to maintain
their communal life without a link between mosque and state, and by and large
they have succeeded. It has not been easy. On occasion Indian Muslims have been
provoked to violence against their more numerous Hindu neighbors, as in the
state of Gujarat in 2002, and the Hindu response was horrendous. India's
Muslims have learned that extremists in their ranks will call vengeance down
upon their communities. They demonstrated sagacity in their refusal to bury in
consecrated ground the Muslim terrorists killed last year in Mumbai.
Muslims around the world should look to India as an example of moderation and
co-existence. Whether they like it or not, Muslims will remain a minority in
the world, a minority that cannot defend itself against the superior technology
and military culture of other countries. Its legitimate aspirations must lead
it to moderation and compromise. The alternative could be quite nasty.
That sort of speech would get the undivided attention of the Muslim world.
Anything else will lend credibility to the Islamists and foster triumphalism.
Thus far, Obama's efforts to propitiate the "Muslim world" have made the
administration's future work all the harder. Iran is convinced that the
administration needs it to help out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has all the
less incentive to abandon its central goal of developing nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is in the midst of a bloody civil war forced upon it by the United
States. After Obama leaned on the Israelis to halt settlement construction, the
Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas left Washington convinced that
Obama will force out the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu during the next two years.
For his trouble, Obama will get more bloodshed in Pakistan, more megalomania
from Iran, more triumphalism from the Palestinians, and less control over Iraq
and Afghanistan. Of all the available bad choices, Obama has taken the worst.
It is hard to imagine any consequence except a steep diminution of American
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman, Associate Editor of First
Things (www. firstthings.com).