Barack Obama and the illusion of a new “Islam loving” America
Yassin Temlali - 19/06/2009
On June 4, from Cairo, Barack Obama addressed the “Muslims” to promise “America will never be, at war with Islam”.
He rejected the theory of the “clash of civilisations” and to the audience’s delight, used to hearing their religion demonised, he peppered his speech with Coranic quotes. He reaffirmed his support for the constitution of the Palestinian state and pressed Israel to halt the settlements in the West Bank.
These are some relevant points of the speech held by the American President in Egypt’s capital. In his call for a friendly co-operation between the US and the “Muslim world”, in his recognition of the sufferings of the Palestinians, the speech breaks with the usual rhetoric of the White House. Alas, this is in fact the only novelty.
Barack Obama rejected the theory of the “clash of civilisations”, but doesn’t advocating “dialogue between civilisations” lead back to this narrow vision of humanity, that divides it in hermetically sealed cultural areas? Is the American President subjugated by the Huntington doctrine when implicitly, in the heading of his speech, he asserts that the main identity of the 57 States of the "Muslim world" is a religious identity? By this, does he assume that, as for neo-cons at the service of the American hegemony, understanding Islam is a necessary – and sufficient – precondition to understanding “Muslims”?
Barack Obama hasn’t obviously pondered over the reality of the “Muslim world” that he so brilliantly addressed: does it really exist or is it the fruit of ideologists that needed to find in America a “new strategic enemy” following to the dismemberment of the communist bloc? After all, what is the “Muslim world”? Is it the Gulf kingdoms that include some of the wealthiest nations of the world, or Somalia and Chad, worn out by famines and wars? Is it Turkey with its parliamentary regime or Qatar with its tribal autocratic political system? Is it Algeria where Islamists participate in government or Libya who hangs them in their cells?
Are Muslims “forcibly religious”?
By addressing a billion and a half Muslims as “believers”, the US President revived an old “Western” prejudice. As in the dark ages, “Mahometans” are essentially “religious” beings and in their countries, religion is the main motor of social life; they only have to praise the greatness of faith, to speak of their past laurels to conquer their hearts and lands. This same prejudice led Napoleon to write in a letter to an Egyptian religious notable Cheikh Al Messiri: “I hope the moment will come soon when I will be able to gather all the wise and learned men of the country to establish a uniform regime, founded on the principles of the Coran, the only true ones and the only ones that can fulfil man.” This prejudice also causes the expression “respect for Islam” to be constantly quoted in official American speeches, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
Considering the Muslim world as a single entity beyond its political, economic and linguistic differences is not only a theoretical error. It implicitly justifies the radical Islamists who uphold the existence of a single nation “from Ocean to Ocean” that is today aggressed by the “unholy” Judaic-Christians. It grants a new legitimacy to the Islamist leaders and recognises them as the genuine representatives of their “religious brothers”.
America will never be at war with Islam, promised the US President as to excuse his predecessor who set fire to modern time “religious wars”. But where George W. Bush’s campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq “campaigns against Muslims”? It raises a doubt. The United States overthrew the Taliban with the help of the “Northern Alliance”, an Islamist militia. In their place they seated the regime of Hamid Karzaï, an adept of the “application of the Sharia” as “moderate” as he may be. They replaced Saddam Hussein’s lay regime with another one that is almost fully theocratic. The list of “Muslim” allies of Bush’s America involved a state like Saudi Arabia that prohibits women to drive cars and another one, like Tunisia, that authorises free and complimentary abortions; States that recognise the Islamist movements like Jordan and others who, like Egypt, ban them.
George W. Bush obviously had strong anti-Muslim opinions but his warning against the “Islamic threat” seemed mainly aimed at a domestic public. It was meant to align the electors behind a White House busy with the military defence of the interests of the declining American capitalism. Every time “Muslims” had to be reassured, the former US President would recall “Islam’s humanism” with terms that his successor would not deny. In fact, in 2003, during a visit to Indonesia, he stated that Islam was “one of man’s most prestigious religions”. In 2007, during an address at the Boston Islamic Centre, he recalled “Islam’s contribution to universal civilisation”. How different are Barack Obama’s words in Cairo?
The US President has asked the Palestinians even more concessions
The US President has spent generous words for the Palestinian people like no other American politician – with the notable exception of Jimmy Carter – had ever used for them. But what did he actually offer? Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanine Haykal summarised the situation in these terms: “For us the Arabs, he declaimed a love poem. For the Israelis, he clearly spoke of an unwavering and eternal friendship” (“Al-Chourouk”, 8 June 2009).
The new head of the White House spoke of Jerusalem as a “multi-confessional” capital: this declaration differs from the one he used during his electoral campaign, when he qualified this city as “eternal capital” of the Hebrew State. He also criticised the pursuing settlement of the Palestinian territories and expressed his support for a “Palestinian state living side by side next to Israel”.
However, if his positions seem revolutionary, it probably owes to the fact that the Israeli government has backed off on the engagements taken by the Olmert government, which were quite minor as a start. It pursues with the settlements and never misses a chance to reaffirm its opposition to the “two State solution”.
America’s support to the creation of a Palestinian entity is not new (George W. Bush expressed it for the first time in 2001), moreover the nature of this entity remains vague in Barack Obama’s speech. Is he talking about a sovereign State or a Bantustan network, where air and sea space are controlled by Israel? Is he talking about a State or, as proposes Benyamin Netanyahu, a new Andorra – a wretched situation – whose only attribute of sovereignty is a mere flag. The US President didn’t specify this. On the other hand, the day after the Cairo speech, he asked the Arabs from Germany to make some “painful concessions”, underlining, quite in Bush’s fashion that, “Mahmoud Abbas has progressed [on this road] but it still isn’t enough!”
This declaration is odd considering that although the Palestinian Authority had well received Barack Obama’s declarations in Cairo, it wasn’t the case for Netanyahu’s government. To challenge Washington, the Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, had even promised to “use his resources to expand the settlements” and promised that he “would not tolerate the removal of even a single outpost”.
The quick readjustment of Barack Obama’s position on the Palestinian question therefore came as no surprise. Though his compassion for the Palestinians was mere rhetoric, it revolted Israeli officials and the American conservative right. The clarity he used in asking more concessions to the Palestinians reveals the narrowness of his breathing space in forcing Benyamin Netanyahu to recognise Palestinians their national rights.
For all that, are Barack Obama and George W. Bush “all the same”? Does the President who closed down Guantanamo remind us of the one who opened it? Can a President who calls for respect for the religious freedom of Muslims be comparable to another who turned the latter in the CIA’s and FBI’s favourite suspects?
No, however, the difference between these two presidents does not reside in their love or hatred of “Muslims”, but only in one’s will to recognise the contribution of the US allies in maintaining its hegemony and the obstinacy of the other in considering them interchangeable epigones. It resides in Barack Obama’s pragmatism that breaks with the illuminated projects of his predecessor, who aimed at democratising the “Muslim world” by armed force.
The change in the US foreign policy isn’t due to the personal ideas of its President but rather to the urgent need of reshaping this policy. This reshaping has become a survival need for the greatest world power, following to the resistance from people in Latin America or in the Middle East, who made their plans of hegemony fail. Barack Obama, from this point of view, is “the man”, the one whose culture and origins allow him to moderate the eternal Yankee expansionism, in order to let the planet swallow it better.
Translated by Nada Ghorayeb