Several months ago, it was announced President Barack Obama, within the first 100 days of his term, would visit a Muslim country to deliver a major foreign policy speech breaking new ground in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. That schedule slipped a bit as it was just announced the speech will now be delivered next month in Egypt.
Whether such a bold move will set a course during his presidency for success or failure in dealing with the Muslim world turns on three factors: where the speech is given, to whom, and precisely what he says. While Obama controls the first and last factor, by deciding to deliver his speech in Egypt, he has already made a wrong decision concerning the first.
Let us consider the impact of all three factors.
As to whom the speech is given, his Muslim audience will consist of three distinct groups: those firmly committed to Islam’s peaceful practice; those not so firmly committed but who do not readily endorse the extremist doctrine; and those firmly committed to an extremist view seeking to rid the world of all nonbelievers.
Only the first two groups can possibly react to Obama’s message with action that benefits our national interests. It is foolish to believe his words will give pause to extremists, committed as they are to a world unified under but one religion and to which they attach such hostility, to have a “eureka” moment, causing reconsideration of their violent dogma.
As to where the speech is given, the Muslim world will draw its own interpretations from Obama’s site selection as, in their eyes, great political prestige accrues to whichever nation hosts the speech. Such a selected site, therefore, should have been deemed “worthy” of such an honor by emphasizing an important value recognized in both Western and several Muslim states. That value is great tolerance, not only towards believers but non-believers as well. This was an opportunity to make the campaign for the selection of a site for Obama’s speech a “human rights beauty contest.” But, based on its human rights track record, Egypt should never have been a contestant.
Better candidates for this honor existed — countries where the seed of tolerance clearly blossoms. These include Muslim majority democracies such as Turkey, Indonesia or Mali, or, perhaps, even a tolerant Muslim constitutional monarchy such as Morocco. The more tolerant the country selected, the more positive would have been the message of tolerance toward all religions conveyed by the leader of the Free World. That opportunity has now been lost.
The only other factor remaining now and over which Obama can exercise control is his speech’s content. This will prove challenging — not only for what he wants to say but also for what he does not want to say.
A non-Muslim commenting on Islam runs the same risk our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan do driving down a road — i.e., not knowing whether some sort of “explosion” lies ahead. Obama will deliver his speech not knowing whether an innocent comment will be misunderstood, triggering an explosive reaction. Clearly, Muslims have demonstrated disdain for criticism, triggering violence when interpreted as such. We need only look back to their reactions to Pope Benedict XVI’s innocent historic observation about Islam, the Danish newspapers’ publication of Muhammad caricatures, the furor over a report (later proven false) a U.S. military guard at Guantanamo had flushed a Muslim prisoner’s Koran down the toilet. All these generated violent responses. If Obama intends to say the things that need to be said in his speech, he risks just such an explosive reaction.
What exactly Obama may say next month should be of concern because he has already demonstrated an inclination to denigrate America in front of European audiences. Undoubtedly, to curry favor among his Muslim audience, he is probably considering an apology for actions undertaken by his predecessor. However, in doing so, he will walk a fine line. Thousands of years of history in the region have given rise to the Sumerian concept of the “lugal” or strongman, both feared and revered, by which Muslims have come culturally to equate atonement with weakness. This is why Turkey has long been reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for the Armenian genocide it committed during World War I — even passing a law prohibiting any allegation of it.
Instead of criticizing or being apologetic for America, Obama should remind the Muslim world of our past initiatives to save Muslim lives in places like Kosovo and Somalia and what can be done, by working together, to improve future relations.
The great divide existing between the Western and Muslim worlds centers on a single issue. This is the major issue Obama must address in his speech despite concerns over triggering an explosive reaction. If he ignores it or fails to address it properly, yet another opportunity to send an important message to the Muslim world will have been lost.
At one point in time on the issue of human rights, both the Western and Muslim worlds were in agreement. In 1948, United Nations member states, despite the wide-ranging ideological differences of Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, passed — with no negative votes — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR’s foundation belief appears in the first sentence of Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." In other words, human rights attach to 100 percent of the world’s population, regardless of sex, race or religion.
For more than three decades, the UDHR remained global law, until 1979 when Islamic extremists took power, attacking the document for representing "a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition" unacceptable to Muslims for violating Islamic law.
This resulted nine years ago in 57 member Muslim states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference following Iran’s lead in supporting a new definition of human rights, based on Islam’s Sharia law under the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI).
Under the CDHRI, human rights attached to a much smaller group of human beings — totaling approximately eight percent of the world’s population — only male Muslims to the exclusion of nonbelievers and Muslim women. In other words, human rights were extended only on the basis of a specific sex — male — and a specific religion — Islam.
In its 1948 acceptance of the UDHR, the basically non-Muslim West appropriately rejected the subordination of Muslims to non-Muslims; therefore, why not ask Muslims similarly to reject the subordination of non-Muslims to Muslims, as demanded by the CDHRI? Non-Muslims who tolerate their own subordination under the CDHRI are signaling weakness and providing no basis upon which to build a bridge traversing the religious divide between Islam’s believers and nonbelievers.
Obama must challenge Muslims to rejoin the UDHR fold, bridging the existing religious divide by recognizing "universal" human equality. A gifted speaker, he must craft that message as only he can, encouraging the Muslim world to open its borders to all religions, less the divide continue.
Obama should take a page from Ronald Reagan’s historic 1987 speech that challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Wall separating East and West Berlin, recognizing freedom. In similar fashion, Obama should challenge Muslim leaders to tear down the wall separating Islam from other world religions, recognizing universal human equality.
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