If I were giving President Obama’s speech a grade solely for effectiveness in reaching out to the Muslim world, he would definitely get an “A.” But in doing so, he exaggerated the virtues of all religions–not only Islam–and simply ignored the historical fact that religious liberty for all is a secular principle born of the Enlightenment. He also failed to note that dominant majority religions had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept freedom of conscience for others within their sphere. For that portion of his speech, I give him a “C-.” And that’s a generous grade.
“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance,” he told his audience at Cairo University. “We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” Actually, Obama has his timeline wrong. It was before the Inquisition, during the period known as the convivencia on the Iberian peninsula, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in the same cities and developed a culture not of “tolerance” in the modern sense but of cross-fertilization of ideas. That came to an end with the Christian reconquest and union of Spain and the final expulsion of both Jews and Muslims in 1492. And the tolerant side of Islam lost out after the expulsion from Spain. (For more on this subject, see Ornament of the World, by Maria Rosa Menocal. I don’t agree with everything she says, but it’s a fascinating and important work.)
Majority religions have seldom displayed tolerance unless they were required to do so by a civil government. That is the main reason why Jews, after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, always sided with secular reformers when they had the chance. The founding generation of the United States was the exception that proves the rule. It is still amazing to realize that an overwhelmingly Protestant people voluntarily became the first nation in the world to guarantee freedom of conscience to everyone.
Obama talked happy talk about the “Holy Bible,” the “Holy Koran,” and the Talmud at Cairo University. He should also have noted the contribution that secular thought has made to all countries in which there is true freedom of religion. Religious freedom is a religious value for some people of faith now, but to suggest that it is a historically religious value is disingenuous–though it went over as well in Cairo as it does with audiences composed of other religious people.
I was happy that Obama mentioned women’s rights as a point of tension between the West and many elements in the Muslim world, but he did not go far enough. And once again, he did not draw any connection between secular democracy and women’s rights. The only majority Muslim countries in which women have anything approaching equal legal rights are countries with secular governments. Equality for women, again, was originally a secular idea. And all major religions fiercely opposed the 19th-century feminist movement. Islam, both in the Islamic theocracies and in states, like Pakistan, that have secular governments but strong extremist forces within, is far behind both mainstream Christianity and mainstream Judaism in its acceptance of women’s equality.
Obama said that “the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world. True enough, but right-wing Christian fundamentalists here do not have the power to keep women from going to school, baring their faces, driving cars, or (according to a new law in Afghanistan) leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.
Of course I understand that a president (or anyone else, for that matter) doesn’t go into other people’s houses and tell them how to live their lives. But Obama didn’t have to do that in order to point out the importance of secular concepts of women’s rights as human rights. And I really hated his statement that we shouldn’t “disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.” Pretense? (The White House transcript spelled the word incorrectly in standard American English.) It’s no pretense, Mr. President. My liberalism is what makes me support the right of Muslim girls to wear the hijab, if they wish, in public schools in the United States. They also have the right not to cover their heads (or their faces)–a right that girls subjected to fundamentalist Islamist rule do not have.
Obama might also have pointed out that in non-theocratic Muslim countries, attacks on women’s rights are one of the earliest and most effective tactics of Islamic extremists attempting to undermine secularly oriented governments.
Readers of my essays already know that I strongly support Obama’s position on a halt to new settlements on the West Bank, as well as his call for Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist. They also know that I don’t believe Obama’s efforts are going to be any more successful than Jimmy Carter’s or Bill Clinton’s. I think Hamas will recognize Israel’s right to exist when pigs fly, and I do not think that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to say tomorrow, “Oy vey, we’ve been wrong for so long and I’m going to dismantle the settlements.”
But that is no reason not to try–again. And I deeply hope that my pessimistic view turns out to be wrong. As long as there is no progress toward a Middle East peace settlement, the conflict between Isarel and the Palestinians will continue to offer an excuse for terrorism. I also think that Obama did well to talk about the Holocaust to an audience in the heart of the Arab world–and to Muslim listeners around the world–because the historical facts about the Holocaust are neither widely known nor widely accepted in majority Muslim nations. I must note that although Obama’s speech was interrupted with applause many times, he received no applause when he said anything about the Holocaust or Israel’s right to exist.
Furthermore, I think that Obama’s references to the possibility of cooperation between American leaders and sensible Middle East leaders on issues like nuclear nonproliferation were extremely helpful. If Obama fails to impress Americs’s most implacable enemies in the Islamic world, he may well impress sane Muslim leaders on issues such as nuclear weapons.
That’s why I give Obama an “A” for diplomacy and a “C-” for defending secular democratic ideas. Call me crazy. I just hate hearing this American president, whom I so deeply respect and in whom I have invested so much of my own hope, bowing to the “holy” Koran and “holy” Bible. If it weren’t for tenacious belief in the sacredness and holiness of religious texts written by all too human beings, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
For more commentary on Obama’s speech to the Muslim World, go to the Saban Center at Brookings’ Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World and the Doha Network.