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 Crusade.
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 proposition.
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 influence.