President Barack Obama gave a highly anticipated speech to the Islamic world on June 4th in Cairo. There was a great deal of excitement in the Muslim community to hear what a President who shares a middle name with the grandson of Prophet Muhammad has to say. There are many reasons why Obama’s speech is important. But there are also many reasons why it really isn’t.
Let me explain. My friends at Patheos.com asked me to write a Muslim perspective on Obama’s speech, and I found myself surprisingly ambivalent about the whole affair. On a positive note, since his historic election, Obama has made substantial efforts to reach out to the Islamic community and rebuild bridges after the disastrous legacy of his predecessor George W. Bush. He has signaled a willingness to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran, has made some comments in sympathy with the Palestinians, and has called for an end to Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Most importantly, in a speech he gave to the Turkish Parliament in April, Obama repeatedly used a word that Muslims have craved to hear from American leaders: “respect.” After decades of open contempt for Islam in the corridors of Washington and the news media, the word signals an acceptance that mutual respect is the cornerstone of building a new relationship between the West and the Islamic world.
All of this is important and indicates a dramatic shift away from a foreign policy based on imperial hubris that has marked the past eight years. And it is not surprising that Obama, who has Muslim relatives and spent his youth among Muslims in Indonesia, has natural empathy for the Islamic world and knows how to communicate with its people. His epic rhetorical skills were in evidence in Cairo, and his speech may very well be remembered as historic and have a profound impact on Muslim hearts and minds.
In his speech, Obama continued his current efforts to treat Muslims with respect and encourage real discourse between America and Islamic nations. He quoted liberally from the Holy Qur’an, which was well received by Muslim audiences. His support for an independent and prosperous Palestinian state living in peace with Israel was welcomed by most Muslims. Obama also encouraged Muslim countries to move toward democracy, and did not shy from saying critical things about the current political and human rights equation in the Islamic world. And he pledged America’s support for Muslims in helping their countries to improve and evolve into freer and more economically successful societies.
All of this is important and needed to be said. The fact that such words came from the mouth of America’s first black president, one who has Muslim relatives, gave them real weight for his Muslim audience. Obama’s natural talent is the ability to inspire and effect change with the power of words, an ability that Muslims greatly respect, as our first and greatest orator was Prophet Muhammad himself. As I detail in my novel, Mother of the Believers, the power of the spoken and written word in shaping a community’s destiny is central to Islam. The first commandment received by the Prophet from the angel Gabriel was simple and unequivocal: “Read!”
President Obama is perhaps the most well-read and eloquent American leader in quite some time. But even the power of his words is limited. After the applause dies down, after the giddy cheers dissipate and are replaced by only echoes that linger like dying embers in a hearth, the Muslim world will still face very stark realities and challenges. And ultimately Barack Obama will not be the solution to the problems facing Islam today. It will be the Muslims that will have to bear the burden of making the painful reforms to revitalize our civilization, which has reached a pivotal moment in history.
It has been several decades since the Muslim world emerged from the greatest shock in its history since the Mongol destruction of Baghdad – the legacy of European colonialism. Most of our nations are new, less than a century old, and were carved out of the ruins of dead Islamic empires – the Ottomans in Turkey and the Middle East, the Qajars of Iran, and the Mughals of the Indian subcontinent. I was born in Pakistan, a Muslim country that didn’t come into being until 1947, when my parents were toddlers. The extreme shock and humiliation of occupation by European powers has left the Islamic world in deep disarray and confusion.
Muslims have lost their sense of themselves as a confident, progressive community meant to serve as models and leaders for the world. In a wonderful new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary looks at how the recent experience of Western domination has shaken the sense of Islam’s “manifest destiny” among Muslims. Only a few hundred years ago, Muslim armies ruled Eastern Europe and stood poised to conquer Vienna. Prior to that we had created rich civilizations that were the envy of the world – the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Umayyads of Spain led humanity in art and science. Muslims had mastered the use of gunpowder in the 13th century, when Europeans were living in stone huts. And the idea that one day the primitive Europeans would not only dominate Muslims but quantum leap past us in science, art and technology was laughable.
But it happened. And now we are here. Unelected dictators, clinging to outdated political and economic philosophies, rule most of the Muslim world. Muslims who used to take pride in treating women better than Christians (Islam gave women property and inheritance rights 1,300 years before Europe and America followed suit) now find ourselves having to defend the honor of our faith against claims of misogyny. Our education systems are still catching up to the West, and our commitment to the arts is shaky. Freedom of speech is curtailed in much of the Muslim world, even though the right to speak out against the ruler has long been enshrined in Islamic law.
And our greatest sorrow, the suffering of our brothers in Palestine, remains something that Muslims feel they can do nothing to alleviate. With Israel’s nuclear weapons and economic and military support from the United States, Muslims feel powerless to help the Palestinians defend their lives, their homes, their human dignity. Seeing Israeli soldiers standing guard over the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Muslims pray is heart wrenching and shameful for a community that has considered Jerusalem its home since the days of Prophet Muhammad.
These are things that President Obama can do little to change. Indeed, when it comes to American foreign policy in the Middle East, Muslims are likely to be deeply disappointed in Obama. The reality is that unconditional support for Israel in general, and its right-wing politicians in particular, is deeply embedded into the Washington political culture. That bias will not change for decades, if ever. And despite his rhetoric in support of democracy in the Muslim world, Obama is unlikely to pressure our dictators to liberalize their societies. After the disaster of attempting to impose American power in Iraq, the United States has lost its taste for transforming other societies.
While the end of American imperial fantasies may be a good thing, it means that Muslims can no longer expect America to be on the forefront of their struggles for freedom and justice. America’s economy is, frankly, bankrupt and cannot afford an aggressive foreign policy of any kind. So Muslims must accept that Obama’s words will likely be just that – words. We must take up the responsibility for transforming our own societies ourselves. America will not solve the Palestine problem. America will not bring us democracy or human rights. America will not advance our economic, educational and political stature. That is something only Muslims can and must do.
The Holy Qur’an tells us that every human being is a “khalifa” – God’s viceroy on Earth. The responsibility is on our shoulders to struggle for change, which is the true meaning of the word “jihad.” No one else is going to carry our burdens. So we can take inspiration from President Barack Hussein Obama. We can take admonition from him. But ultimately Muslims must take responsibility for ourselves in bringing Islam back to its true destiny – to be a beacon of hope, progress and leadership for the world.