So going to Egypt to talk to the Muslim world was perhaps a mistake. However, it is the largest Arab state, the third biggest recipient of US aid, and the first Arab state to make peace with Israel – albeit that relations remain frosty.
So what did he say? His speech in full is here, but overall I found it disappointing, with some flashes of inspiration.
There is some which is positive, reaffirming the alliance with Israel, damning those who would deny the Holocaust, criticising Israel’s continued construction of settlements on the West Bank. He talked openly about the rights Muslims have in the USA, and how their rights to freedom of worship are protected. This was a positive message, one not made often enough in the censored world of much media in the autocracies than control most of the Muslim world.
He made it clear that the USA will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.” A critical point, but there are sadly more than enough of all faiths who believe in killing innocent men, women and children, and faiths who believe no one is innocent – Islamists who happily seek to murder any in the name of jihad or those Christians who think everyone is a sinner.
He clearly tried to reach out to moderate Islam by claiming “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.” Yet surely without Islam, Al Qaeda would not exist, Hamas would not exist, in fact terrorism would be confined to far more localised actions and not united by a religion that can be used to justify waging war on non-believers. Afghanistan would be far safer if it was full of objectivists, for example! If the US is to promote peace it can do no better than to promote respect for individual rights, and to let Islam wither.
However, while Obama sought a new beginning, talking of ending a “cycle of suspicion and discord”, some of the language he uses is a cause for concern.
He wants to “fight negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”, which begs some obvious questions:
1. What is a negative stereotype, compared to a negative fact – i.e. when Islamic regimes employ violence against their own citizens for matters that should be free will, such as apostasy, criticising Islam, homosexuality? Who decides what is a stereotype and what isn't?
2. How does this fit in with the fundamental right of free speech in the 1st amendment of the US Constitution? Can nobody poke fun at Islam anymore? What of negative stereotypes of atheists or those of other religions?
Obama suggested that there needed to be mutual respect. Indeed there does, between individuals, and by governments of individuals. However, will Muslim states even allow people to promote other religions, eliminate apostasy as a crime and allow the promotion of atheism?
The mutual respect he calls for is based on “the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Whoa hold on a minute. “America” as a political/philosophical concept is embodied in one document – the Constitution of the United States. “Islam” is embodied in the Koran, how DO they overlap?
What of those common principles? Well you can say the USA was founded to achieve justice, but the philosophical basis underpinning justice is what is important - justice in the concept of fundamental freedoms, not submission to a deity. Something that Obama carefully sidestepped away from.
The United States is based on the premise that government does not exist for God, or the rulers, but as an instrument of the people. That government exists to protect their rights, and explicitly guarantees rights of free speech, assembly, association, religion, bear arms, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, a right to jury trial etc. etc. The fundamental underpinnings of government that protects individual rights, and has a superstructure of separation of powers, liberal democracy and government to serve the people.
Islam, the very word, has its roots in the Arabic word Aslama, meaning to “submit”. Islam demands individual submission, the USA demands the state be submissive to the rights of the individual. How different could you be?
Yes, it is possible to distil elements of Islam that would be seen compatible with individual rights, it is easy to acknowledge that in the USA Muslims are free to live their personal lives compatible with Islam, as long as they respect others to do the same. However, beyond that Islam and secular individualism ARE in competition, it is quite naive to suggest that a secular government protecting individual rights (the idea of the USA) can be compatible with an Islamic government demanding submission to Islamic law.
Obama may have been better to suggest that the values expounded by the USA are universal, apply to all individuals, and that they allow Muslims to practice their religion, and promote it, as long as they respect others to do the same. Indeed, relatively secular Egypt is in some respects a partial example. One can be Christian or atheist in Egypt relatively easily, although the law still has some elements of Sharia, and by no means is one free to criticise the government openly.
On Iran he simply wanted it to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also talked about the abolition of nuclear weapons. Without context to that, it is a meaningless concept – and for me that context is one where all countries relate to each other more like western countries do, where the idea of military action of any kind between each other is inconceivable.
He appeared supported democracy in a more optimistic way than I would have expected “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” The freedom to live as you choose is the closest he has got to yet on individual rights, which is more than democracy – something that should be welcomed.
As is his belief that “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.” Although what respect means is obviously a bit unclear, and sadly his further statements don’t help “No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.” Respecting the rights of minorities is NOT respecting the rights of individuals, and a spirit of compromise when it comes to individual rights is hardly tolerable. Besides, every dictatorship in recent history has talked of the interests of the people. Russia would meet this standard, and even China may claim power through consent and happily claim the rest to be true.
His words on faiths bringing people together are relatively benign, and he encouraged women having rights, which in Egypt they do have more than most states in the Middle East.
Overall, his message was clearly intended to be one of goodwill, but it falls far short of promoting the idea that Islam should only exist within a framework of individual rights. He is badly mistaken to claim overlaps between the USA and Islam, but more disturbingly to want to fight negative stereotypes about Islam – he is effectively endorsing laws to harass Danish cartoon makers, for example. His view of democracy gave enormous room to move to allow for continued repression of individual rights, as he talked only of rights for minorities – which of course can be defined by governments themselves. So the verdict? Not hopeless, but maybe 4 out of 10. Clear messages on Israel, against Holocaust denial, against terrorism and alluding to freedom are welcome, along with clarity on what rights Muslims have in the USA, but he did not have the courage to explain what the USA is about – nor did he expound democracy as being besides the point if fundamental individual rights are not respected.
Is it that Obama does not understand what the US is about, or does he simply lack the courage to explain it?