"So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America." Barack H. Obama, Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. So Mr. Obama declared to his audience at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. This declaration, both profoundly optimistic and incomprehensible, serve as the best and most enigmatic part of Mr. Obama's long awaited opening to the dar al Isalm, the subject of this essay.
The concept of the state has been tremendously elastic in the West. It is at once a political construct defined by the territory under the control of a government with the power to defend its borders. Yet it has also been a community of believers, a language group, a culture, an ethnos and a demos. It requires self consciousness and the power to construct a physical space within which that collective consciousness can be manifested in a political sense. Currently the state appears as a social body with political consequences--a territory recognized as distinct by other like territories. That is, in essence, the construct under which international organizations are instituted. A state exists, because other states say it does, and for so long as they are willing to continue to say it. This construction is especially useful in systems designed to subordinate ethnic, religious, social, class and other sources of regulatory power to those grounded in allegiance to a the territorial state and its substantive values based on notions access to political power and equal treatment of those with citizenship rights. It also embraces basic notions of fair treatment for all others.
These shifting and sometimes incompatible notions of political organization--and its meaning for law, politics, social and political citizenship, were nicely illustrated recently when that quintessential product of the late liberal Enlightenment, the apparatus of the President of the United States, sought to communicate with that quintessential product of the reconstituted and politically evolving ummah wahida, organized within the comprehension framework of the West the independent Egyptian state. Barack H. Obama, Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. It is these difficulties of fundamental conception of peoplehood, state, territory and values hierarchies, one grounded in the privileging of religion as a political force, that provide the underlying irony to an otherwise pretty speech.
The President begins by a nod toward the distinction in political consciousness represented by Western notions of territory and citizenship, and those distinctly within the dar al Islam. Mr. Obama brings the "goodwill of the American people" but more importantly, perhaps, a reminder of the extension of the ummat al-mu'minin within the United States: "I am also proud to carry with me . . . a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum." Id.
That connection established (one that will be personalized in the body of the President through his ancestors later in the speech), the President establishes the thesis of the speech: "For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress." Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. Mr. Obama comes in search of a new beginning--but that beginning is meant to be undertaken in a specific direction. When Mr. Obama speaks to the harmony between tradition and progress within Islam, represented by the university traditions of the institutions in which he speaks, he has something definite in mind. And it is to the development of his sense of the appropriate evolution of Islamic sensibilities that he devotes the rest of the speech.
Mr. Obama starts with an acknowledgement of the current state of relations between the representatives of the dar al Islam and the United States as a principal representative of the dar al harb, "tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate." He acknowledges and asserts ownership of, in the name of the non-Muslim West, of colonialism, Cold War neo-colonialist realpolitik, and modernity and globalization. Each of these, it is implied, was a product of the West, inured only to the benefit of the West and inevitably were objects of suspicion among Muslims. That gesture, while apparently thoughtful continues Western notions of Muslim passivity and an ossified traditionalism that makes it hard for Muslim majority states to act for their own interests and to absorb changes in the world order except in a reactive and reactionary way. This understanding remains the basic assumption of Westerners about the body of Islam, serving both as explanation an excuse for what is seen as a predictable relation to such aggressive development within the dar al harb:
Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.Id. It is this "cycle of suspicion and discord" (id.), or at least that cycle of suspicion of the West by the ummah and its resulting discord from out of the community of the faithful, that "must end." Id. To that end, Mr. Obama offers what he calls a new beginning.
I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon 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.Id. So, Mr. Obama means to focus on sameness rather than difference. Or rather, Mr. Obama is seeking the ummah to focus on sameness rather than difference with the West. It is time, in effect, for Islam to behave better, listen more, fear less, and respect better.
But before he can elaborate on the meaning of the terms of this new beginning, Mr. Obama suggests the discursive framework of the discussion. "I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground." Id. For that purpose, Mr. Obama, drawing subtly on Christological metaphor, offers up his own body. That body is meant represent the incarnation of the possibility of mutual respect, legitimacy, and the other ideals he offers up to his audience. More importantly, it is offered up as proof of his enhanced legitimacy to speak from the West to Islam. No Christian, much less any Jewish person, can embody the legitimacy to speak to Islam.
I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.Id. Trust me. Believe in me. I can show you the way. That is a well worn trope in the speeches of the early part of Mr. Obama's administration. See, e.g., Larry Catá Backer, Mr. Obama on Guantanamo: Of Power and Politics in Time of Crisis, Law at the End of the Day, May 21, 2009.
Like Mr. Obama, the United States represented that blended ideal that serves as a proxy for the world. "Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores" Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. It is the world incarnate, a theme Mr. Obama raised for the first time in this form in its inaugural address. See, Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part XIV: “For Now We See Through A Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face”; On President Obama's Inauguration Speech Law at the End of the Day, January 21, 2009. "We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."" Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra.
"So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. And it is to the elaboration of those truths for which Mr. Obama witnesses through his own body that the speech turns to next.
We start from the common hope for all humanity that the universal body of the United States and the universal within the body of the President represents:
I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations - to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.Id. That mixture of the individual and the aggregate, the personal and the abstract, the incarnation of state within the body of a man, hearkens both to powerful rhetorical strains in Christian iconography and cosmology, as well as a centuries old tradition of the personal constitution of government in the West. Here those strains are most effectively distilled.
And it is here, at the rhetorical height of the speech, that Mr. Obama at last returns to the details of what he means by the contribution of Islam to the end of the cycle of suspicion and discord the broad outlines of which marked the end of the first third of the speech. Those details are nicely broken down into a number of specific categories.
The first is "violent extremism, in all of its forms." Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. Recalling the call of certain Christian sects with respect to sexual non conformity that one ought to hate the sin but not the sinner, Mr. Obama declares that the United States is not at war with Islam generally, but will 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." Id. To effect this distinction, Mr. Obama, like many in the West, offers Islam a theological fiction--the reconstruction of al Qaida and the Taliban as political rather than as religious groups. "So America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer." Id. And on this basis Mr. Obama offers a justification for military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the involvement in Pakistan.
At the base of Mr. Obama's logic is the suggestion that because terrorist groups killed innocents then they operate outside the laws of politics and theology. Yet, that broad statement rests on a weak assumption--that others agree with Mr. Obama's characterization. And within Islam, certainly, there is some theological support for the opposite view. That, certainly, has served religious groups well in their justification for attacks on civilians within Israel on theologically sounds grounds. Consider the fatwas of Yusuf al-Qaradawi the Norwegian Muslim cleric Basim Ghozlan, who suggested a theological basis in Islam for considering all people in Israel as combatants and legitimate military targets. Jens Tomas Anfindsen, Theology of Terror in The Islamic Federation (“Det islamske forbundet”), Norwegian daily Vårt Land 2005.01.17. One can deplore the action but it less legitimate, as non-Muslims, to question the theology on which it is based. Interview with Al Jazeera Host YUSUF AL-QARADAWI, World Around Us, September 27, 2005.
The "second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world." Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. This description was inartful at best. And it is as much religious, affecting the non Arab dar al Islam, as it is political, involving the determinations of the ethnic composition and control of portions of Cis and Trans Jordan. First, Mr. Obama reminds his audience of the strong ties between the United States and Israel. But then the difficulties begin. It is in this part of the speech that the problems of ummah and state, of politics and religion, of ethnos and demos become all too clear. On the one hand there are the Jews:
Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.Id. And on the other, Palestinians:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.Id. It is not clear what one is to do with this. In a sense, Mr. Obama does more harm than good. He suggests that certain elements of the global media have a point when they suggest that those "rootless" Jews have explored opportunity and settled in what is now Israel when any piece of real estate they might have otherwise been offered would have served as well. And given the offense of the Europeans--perhaps Bavaria or Pomerania might have been better suited to fit the punishment (the construction of a Jewish State) to the crime (the Holocaust). On the other hand, his gentle reminder that Jew baiting among Muslims might now be in as poor taste as it is in much of the Christian West, is a statement rarely made and gently courageous. Yet the suggestion of the plight of the Palestinian camps reminds one, by its noticeable absence, of the cruel way in which Muslims themselves have continued to exploit the sufferings of Palestinians, now constituted as a national identity, by contributing to the impossibility of their naturalization in those countries where they sought refuge in 1948. Inter-Arab political cynicism and manipulation, Arab willingness to sacrifice their brothers and sisters to the cause of the destruction of the Jews, has contributed much to the humanitarian situation in the region. Yet this also remains unstated.
But, of course, this gets Mr. Obama to his rhetorical point--the quite sensible one that "the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security." Id. For that purpose, Mr. Obama, sadly, retreats to those inartful and unsuccessful approaches of the past: the Road Map. In what could have been an opportunity to act like he spoke--to provide a new beginning, something different and fresh, Mr. Obama's soaring rhetoric produces bathos. And the usual warning to both sides in this managed war of attrition: the Palestinainas must get their political house in order and abandon violence. The Israelis ought to stop provocations, the easily exploitable humanitarian situations in Gaza, and particularly making facts on the ground through settlements.
Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.Id. Again, these are ideas that have been aired before, and in their current form. To the extent that they serve as a threat to Arab states, it remains an empty one. The likelihood that Americans will permit more or less friendly states to fall is not contemplated. And there was little else in the speech to suggest that this was more than a rhetorical flourish, and a reminder that actions that might destabilize the current balance of power might well undermine their own support in Washington. It is here that Mr. Obama is at his least convincing.
And then there is Iran. The third "source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons." Id. Mr. Obama acknowledged the political naughtiness of both states from the time of the Cold War overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq to the hostage taking at the early stages of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Again, Mr. Obama offers us bathos. He offers conversation with no preconditions, and then tells his audience that Iran will have to give up its nuclear arms ambitions. What is left is to talk about the way in which Iran will proceed from the rhetoric of nuclear arms development to the ability to access nuclear power for peaceful ends. It is at this point, one suspects, that Mr. Obama's "no preconditions" arise.
Having spoken to concrete issues, and offered little, Mr, Obama turns to the great project of the Bush Administration--one that was its greatest failure--"democracy." Id. Again he means to be clear (a rhetorical device used , suggesting that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Id. But democracy poses a conundrum--one that Mr. Obama alluded to in his discussion of the cynical use by Muslim majority states of the hyper conflict with Jews (through the proxy of Israel) as a means of diverting domestic populations from local problems and consolidating their power.
For his engagement with the issues of democracy, Mr. Obama reports to language and ideals remarkably similar to that used by Mr. Bush in his Second Inaugural address, see Larry Catá Backer, President Bush's Second Inaugural Address: A Revolutionary Manifesto For International Law in Chaotic Times Law at the End of the Day, April 1, 2006. He first posits that each nation gives life to the principles of democracy "its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. " Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. But he also posits the form of democracy as a lived experience within political society:
But 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.Id. This is language that suggests both continued opposition to many regimes that are American allies, but also suggests, if Mr. Obama means to apply this consistently, that relations with states, like Cuba, will not likely better in the near future. Yet, this is unlikely true. Americans will not let long term ideals interfere with short term interest. "There is no straight line to realize this promise." Id. And not all democratically constituted states will be respected--it is not just democracy Mr. Obama emphasizes, but democracy exercised in a particular form (a pointed slap at the democratically elected government now resident in the Gaza Strip). "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people." Id. The Gaza government is illegitimate because the only connection with democracy is election. To acquire legitimacy "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. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy." Id.
From democracy, Mr. Obama moves to religious freedom. First, Mr. Obama cynically revises history. He evokes the tolerance of Muslims for others in classical Arab Andalusia and in modern Indonesia, and contrasts that to the intolerance of Christians. "We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today." Id. He leaves for another day a reminder of the 1958 and 1969 anti-Christian riots in Indonesia (along with the connection between religion and colonialism and ethnic strife there) and current issues of toleration. See UNHCR 1999 Report, Indonesia: Treatment of Christians. He also fails to remember that the golden age of tolerance in al-Andalus lasted only a very short time, to be replaced by waves of more intolerant states under the al Mohavids and their successors, leaving Spain, for much of the "Reconquest" period matching periods of Christian and Muslim intolerance. Indeed, Mr. Obama fails to recall, in his eagerness to paint a different picture, that it was the Muslims themselves, that viewed the practices of the successors to the Spanish Ummayid Caliphate (the Taifa principalities) with increasing loathing as aberrational against whose heterodox habits the invading Almoravids used as part of their campaign to legitimate their conquest of Muslim Iberia in the 11th century.
But political uses of history by politicians has a long history, and the point Mr. Obama was trying to make led him in another direction--the "disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld - whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq." Id. This, Mr. Obama suggested is as intolerable as efforts in the West to impede "Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit ." Id.
Of course, Mr. Obama did not mean what he said. Otherwise he would have to respect al Qaida. Instead, he referred to a Christian understanding of the extent of religious practice: "for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism." Id. In the same strangely parochial spirit, and in a speech ostensibly focused on honest talk, Mr. Obama praised "efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's Interfaith dialogue and Turkey's leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into Interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action - whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster." Id. He should also have praised the Saudi from lifting their ban on Jewish travelers to Saudi Arabia in 2004, whatever their political citizenship.
More important, perhaps were the significant omissions of a President who purported to speak frankly. Entirely absent was the key issue of conversion--one with respect to which Americans in Afghanistan, have sometimes colluded. See Larry Catá Backer, Constitution and Apostasy in Afghanistan, Law at the End of the Day, March 28, 2006. Here Mr. Obama leaves the practical and settles for both the amorphous and rhetorical flourishes, misdirected from core issues. And as important, the issue of the precarious position of other religious groups--key among them the Bahais--was nowhere mentioned. In his eagerness to praise Muslim leader's tentative steps to speaking with Christians and Jews, a fairly easy and media important step in this age of tele-warfare, Mr. Obama abandoned the harder issues. The persecution of the Bahais in Iran, and the effects of treating this faith as heretical among certain elements of the Islamic theological establishment, ought to have been met, not with the imposition of solutions, but with the salutary effects of discussion. None was to be had however.
That leads to another sensitive subject, women's rights. Here again, Mr. Obama equivocates--serving form over substance. Difference in form is tolerable--costume, eating habits, language and the like. Substantive difference, however, is less tolerable. The possibility that one is a proxy and inextricable for the other is not comprehended. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous." Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra. He reminds his Arab hosts that non-Arab Muslim states have elected women to their highest political offices. But he is left with little to offer but the prospect of cultural infiltration:
I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.Id.
And thus we come to the last point, "economic development and opportunity." Id. Like religious freedom and the role of women, this is an area around which Mr. Obama treads lightly. Mr. Obama suggests that globalization is fearful, at least with respect to the breadth of freedom from local mores that it brings. Naughty sex and violence (though that last is odd given the universal appeal of the latter even within established circles), money and social disruptions are both coveted and feared. "Fear that because of modernity we will lose of control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities - those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith." Id. The answer, of course, is control--not of fear, but of all that naughty alluring stuff. Mr. Obama offers his hosts the example of Japan and South Korea, as well as Dubai and Malaysia as systems in which the power of modernity has been harnessed to the preservation of tradition, at least as their respective elites see it.
Again, Mr. Obama offers cultural intervention as a solution, this time in the form of education. "But all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century, and in too many Muslim communities there remains underinvestment in these areas. I am emphasizing such investments within my country. And while America in the past has focused on oil and gas in this part of the world, we now seek a broader engagement." Id. The same applies to economic development. "On economic development, we will create a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries. And I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world." Id. Mr. Obama offered similar amorphous proposals for scientific development and medical assistance. Id. Of course, Mr. Obama is light years behind the European Union in this respect. And he might have spoken to his European colleagues to get a better sense of what might work here. The Americans would have been better advised to offer something like the EU Mediterranean Partnership rather than vague offers lectures and lessons.
But it is time to close the speech. Mr. Obama has laid out his new beginning, like a merchant offering a number of baubles for a rich but skeptical customer. He reminds his listeners again that his purpose is to emphasize unity and harmony over suspicion and discord. He suggests that finding common ground might be the only way (he sees) of moving forward (to where is unclear), and help "remake the world." Id. And so, Mr. Obama ends with a reference to his most potent weapon in a world in which states are subordinated to religious community--faith.
There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.Id. He extracts an appropriately focused expression of that faith as peace from Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts and extends his blessings on the audience: "The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you." Id.
Beyond the rhetoric and the good intentions, the speech provided little. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the address was its scrupulous adherence to traditional American Administration positions. There was little new here--of the six issues raised, none provided much deviaiton from prior well established positions of the American political and media elite. What the speech offered, and in much abundance, was Mr. Obama himself. His metamorphosis, rhetorically at any rate, from individual to embodiment of the American people, and the similar metamorphosis of the American nation from state to proxy for the world, bespeaks the sort of universalism that, under different guises, people in other places had come to suspect. Yet here it is again, and in great abundance. And perhaps it is effective. The identity of person with state, and of state with the world, provides a powerful ideological basis for the projection of cultural as well as political and economic power.
Still, one might have hoped for something a little more interesting on the Israel-Palestine problem, the issue of terrorism and its conflation with religion, and the other issues raised. Yet that absence, itself, suggests the difficulties of communication across framework systems for the construction of political community. The American state and the dar al Islam are fundamentally different political conceptions They imply a different orientation in the hierarchy of power, and in the nature of the allegiance of individuals and their relations to "outsiders." If the ummah exists as both religious and political community, it makes perfect sense for Saudis to view Israelis and Jews as interchangeable, and ban both from travel to Saudi Arabia. Religious and political citizenship conflate under a view in which religion is privileged over other factors in the development of frameworks for governance, at least for some purposes. The West fails to appreciate these differences, and their political consequences, at its peril. It builds resentment and mistrust where it tolerates this sort of political organization, and its consequences, among the ummah but criticizes others in the region for taking faintly similar steps. But the difficulty, of course, lies in the uneven application of the rules of the Western state system, more aggresively against some states, and less so among others. That uneveness presents the sort of opportunities for manipulation, exploitation and miscommunication that has become the hallmark of the relations in this region. Mr. Obama has made it clear that this is unlikely to change. Still, it may not be peace, as understood in the West, but truce, as understood elsewhere, that ought to be the object of interaction among incompatible systems. Managing conflict under rules of attrition in which the last group standing "wins" is perhaps the only realistic alternative.
State systems built on Enlightenment principles designed to reduce religious strife by privatizing religion are difficult to translate into a system in which state systems are incomprehensible without a foundation in religion and a conflation of religious membership and full political citizenship. Until both sides learn to communicate better--recognizing (rather than demonizing) difference--a subject intensely complex in its own right--the hoped for peace and love will be a long time coming. That, of course, was Mr. Obama's point, and a good one. But rhetoric only opens doors. And Mr. Obama, intent on offering himself, on privileging his own body in that cause, runs the risk of distancing himself from the people he represents in seeking to represent the world. Yet he has done more--he has offered himself as the incarnation of the world and the body of the United States as its communal form. His new beginning, understood in those terms, is actually quite an old one--a notion of faith in the incarnation of the divine ironically first made manifest to many Western believers in Roman Palestine several millennia ago. In this respect, at least, Mr. Obama speaks the language of religion. But not that of the ummah. This sort of faith--in Mr. Obama and in the United States--carries the believer far and the unbeliever no where. For this faith to be embraced, perhaps signs are necessary. That, at least, was the traditional method for showing the legitimacy of faith in incarnations of the divine. And there was little evidence of extraordinary signs in a speech designed to point to but not yet manifest or witness the miracle of faith. Thus from the mouth of the enemies of the United States, its religion and civilization, a moment of inadvetent truth and a warning: "another Islamist movement on a US list of terror organisations, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, said Obama offered "no real change" to US policy in the Middle East. ‘The Islamic and Arab world does not need lectures, but real acts starting with a radical change toward the Palestinian cause,’ Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah lawmaker, told AFP." Obama Speech Widely Hailed but Foes Still Skeptical, The Bengladesh Today (from AFP, Paris). Yes, radical change grounded in the principles of a witnesses faith might be needed. Or perhaps a better method of sustaining, as a cultural matter, a determination to manage rather than end conflict in the region., as it profits the current regional actors. For it is not clear that radical change is desired by any of the parties. Even conflict, when well managed, can produce a sort of stability that benefits others. Yet, a radical change that delivers just enough dignity to the Palestinians and just enough security and acceptance in the region by the ummah to a Jewish Israel, might present great opportunities as well. These remain unexplored.
Instead, Mr. Obama sought to dispell doubt and achieve clarity--both of which he did often in this speech. He has "let there be no doubt" (Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra.) of only two things--that Islam is part of America and that the situation of the Palestinian people is intolerable. Both are true enough, though both cut in a variety of directions (for example, the contribution of the ummah to the plight of the Palestinians, and the obligations of Muslims toward the place of their political citizenship).
Mr. Obama spent considerably more time seeking clarity. He has been clear ("let me be clear", Remarks by the President On a New Beginning, supra.) on two issues--the less than supreme role of Islam in the determination of the role of women ("issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam." Id.) and the limited role for the forcible conversion of states to democracy ("No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other. " Id.). He also sought to be clear ("let us be clear" or "I made clear" or "I have made it clear" or "I've made it clear" or "it is clear" or "this much is clear" ) that (1) the United States is not at war with the whole of Islam or the entire ummah ("America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam" Id.), (2) just a part of it ("Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody." Id.), that (3) the United States must both support and leave direct governance of Iraq to its inhabitants ("America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future -- and to leave Iraq to Iraqis"), (4) that the United States would converse with Iran but not about any permission to develop nuclear weapons ("my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build." (Id.) because "when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point." Id.); and (5) that democracy is good, at least in the form understood by the United States ("Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure." Id.).
In the end, Mr. Obama has suggested much that well worn but now wrapped in a faith in himself, and in the United States as a mirror of the world. He has done that effectively. But he has done little else.