Obama’s challenge in the Arab and Muslim worlds

Jun 4, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

June 4, 2009
Number 06/09 #02

Today’s Update offers some additional analysis of the regional environment US President Obama must try to influence in his planned speech in Cairo tonight (Australian time). An interview Obama did with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times apparently reveals some of his own thoughts on the subject.

First up, American columnist Michael Gerson talks about the need to speak not only to governments and the masses but especially dissidents and reformers. He uses the example of former Egyptian Presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who was imprisoned on trumped up charges following the election, and is now subject to both enormous limits on his personal freedom and physical violence.  Gerson says that by focussing on issues like Arab-Israel peace, Obama risks playing into the strategy of regional despots, who want the focus to be on that rather than their own repressive policies and failures. For Gerson’s call not to forget the region’s reformers, CLICK HERE. Even more strongly opposing any equivocation in Obama’s speech on the human rights violations of Egypt and other democratic states is academic Joseph Leconte.

Also making the case that what he calls the “freedom agenda” must and cannot be ignored is Paul Wolfowitz, the former academic and Bush Administration official. Wolfowitz points out that Obama’s own story provides a dramatic illustration of the advantages of freedom and democracy, allowing him to help make the case without seeming to impose Western values. Wolfowitz acknowledges that stability remains important but argues that unless the causes of tyranny and economic poverty are addressed by the US, the US will be seen as indifferent  or actively complicit in maintaining conditions that Muslims see as denying them their rightful place in the world. He has a lot more to say and for his full argument, CLICK HERE. Another former American official, Christian Whiton, comments on the need for Obama to directly confront the ideology of America’s regional enemies. 

Finally, J. Scott Carpenter and Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute expand on a point also made by Wolfowitz – namely that it is a mistake to speak of an entity called “the Muslim world.” They point out that this idea is an absurd way to describe the vast diversity of the world’s Muslims and their societies, and it also plays into the hands of Jihadists and Islamists. The two note that is only these extremists who talk about Muslims as a tightly tied global political entity (as a opposed to the diffuse religious concept of the “Umma”) and legitimising this worldview improves their ability to portray a relentless war between all Muslims and the West. For the rest of their argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, scholar Lee Smith argues that by speaking from Cairo to the Muslims of the world, Obama is accidentally helping further Iran’s regional agenda, in part by purporting to speak to the “Muslim world” rather than the states that represent the various Muslim communities.

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From Ayman Nour, a Question for Obama   

By Michael Gerson

Washington Post, Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I last saw Ayman Nour in a dingy Cairo conference room in 2005 while he was running for president against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s military ruler. During a Middle Eastern trip, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had convened a small group of Egyptian dissidents and civil society leaders to discuss democracy and human rights. Many in the room were encouraged by the greater free expression Mubarak was permitting in Egypt under American pressure. A door, they thought, was opening.

Nour, looking exhausted, spoke last: “This is not an open door, it is a revolving door. It will end up with one conclusion — a monologue, not a dialogue.” Egypt’s election laws, he complained, were unclear and unfair. The government was pursuing trumped-up legal charges against him. State security agents followed him everywhere.

Nour’s pessimism was prophetic. After the election, he was imprisoned for three years. Now he is banned from practicing law, running for office or appearing on national television. Last week, two unknown assailants using a homemade flamethrower burned Nour’s hair and face.

President Obama is entering a nation and a region where such treatment is the normal price of political courage. His Cairo University speech will send a large diplomatic signal: Does Obama honor and support such courage, or de-emphasize and dismiss it in the “realist” pursuit of other ends?

One hopes that Obama and his speechwriters have consulted “The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East,” an important new book by Joshua Muravchik. The book profiles seven men and women — six Arab, one Iranian — taking impossible risks in the cause of human rights and self-government. They include a Saudi woman protesting the treatment of women as chattel and an Egyptian publisher trying to bring a free, responsible press to an authoritarian society. Most of these reformers have suffered imprisonment or faced threats to their lives and families.

Many of these dissidents, Muravchik told me in an interview, felt “betrayed” during the last few years of the Bush administration, when the containment of Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemed to take precedence over democracy promotion (except in Iraq). Reformers in the region generally greeted Obama’s election with enthusiasm. But Muravchik says dissidents are becoming “disquieted about the administration’s apparent indifference to democracy and human rights abuses.”

They should be, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has bluntly admitted that concern about Chinese human rights abuses “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis” — meaning we can’t afford to offend dictators who buy our bonds. The administration talks of reviewing sanctions on Burma’s junta. And Egypt’s ambassador to the United States enthuses that America has stopped making “human rights, democracy and religious and general freedoms” conditions for better relations.

In this environment, the message of Obama’s Cairo speech will be amplified. His Middle East advisers have probably urged him to focus (as they always do) on Israeli-Palestinian peace — the “real” concern of the region — instead of discredited democratic idealism. In fact, this sort of realism both reflects and strengthens the strategy that Middle Eastern dictators have pursued for decades — the strategy of heaping attention on Israel and the Palestinians to draw attention away from their own oppression and economic failure. There is no reason Obama cannot emphasize both a two-state solution and the need for responsible and representative states across the Middle East.

It is also likely that Obama has been counseled to avoid the “d” word — “democracy” — in his Cairo remarks. Middle East experts sometimes contend that promoting “justice” and “good governance” is more culturally sensitive than employing such Westernized concepts as “democracy” and “freedom.” The argument is common — and uninformed. “Justice,” in this context, implies human rights as the gift of a wise emir or enlightened dictator. But, as Nour and others have discovered, such gifts can be withdrawn on a whim. The next founders in the Middle East are not merely begging for more rights from autocrats; they are seeking freedom from autocracy. They want more than for tyrants to open the door of reform a crack; they want to open the door themselves.

Any presidential speech abroad has multiple audiences. One of them, in this case, is the Egyptian government, whose cooperation is needed on issues that range from proliferation to peace. But another audience will be dissidents and reformers in Egypt and beyond. And a president who does not speak boldly for their political rights — their democratic rights — has little useful to say to them.

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Obama and the Freedom Agenda

Egyptian liberals like Ayman Nour should be able to take comfort in his words.


Wall Street Journal, JUNE 4, 2009

President Barack Obama faces great challenges when he speaks to the Muslim world tomorrow from Cairo. He must counter some of the myths and outright falsehoods about the United States that are commonly believed in many parts of the Muslim world, and he needs to present his audience with some inconvenient truths. But he also has an opportunity, based in no small part on his own remarkable career, to make the case that the political principles and values that are sometimes mistakenly labeled as “Western” are appropriate for the Muslim world.

The challenge of addressing the entire Muslim world in a single speech can be appreciated if one imagines what the reaction would be if some other world leader attempted to speak to the “Christian world,” with all of its diversity. For example, although Islam is the state religion in most countries with Muslim majorities, there are a number — including Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world — where it is not. Moreover, some countries have large non-Muslim minorities. And the second largest Muslim population in the world lives as a minority in India. There is an enormous variety of views among Muslims around the world on everything from religion to politics to family values.

Although there are many expectations for this speech, one that Mr. Obama hopefully will disappoint is the expectation that he will walk away from what President George W. Bush called “the freedom agenda.” That would be a great mistake for the U.S. and for the Muslim world.

Some observers have viewed the choice of Egypt as the venue for this important speech as a deliberate distancing from that idea. Egypt is an important country and the largest in the Arab world. But it is not the largest country in the Muslim world, or the most tolerant, or the freest, or the most democratic, or the most developed, or the most prosperous. The president should make clear that his decision to speak in Cairo does not mean he is indifferent to how the Egyptian government treats its own people, despite the importance of Egypt in the Arab-Israeli peace process and as an ally in confronting Iran.

The president said correctly in an NPR interview on Monday that “part of being a good friend is being honest,” and that we need to be honest with Israel about “the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests.” The president also needs to be honest with the Muslim world. That means addressing the causes of the poverty and tyranny which are so pervasive that they create a widespread belief the U.S. is at best indifferent — and at worst actively complicit — in maintaining those conditions in order to deny Muslims their rightful place in the world.

Mr. Obama’s own remarkable career is living testimony to the strengths of America’s open society and free institutions. Most Muslims recognize his achievement in becoming the leader of a country that, despite our problems, is still admired and envied for its prosperity and freedom. At the same time, they recognize that no one of comparable background could become the leader of any of their own countries. That empowers Mr. Obama to argue persuasively that the institutions and practices that have enabled the U.S. to change so much over the course of two centuries can provide the key for their progress as well.

Genuine democracy is a matter of making government accountable and transparent, not only through elections but through many other means as well, including a free press. It means protecting the rights of all citizens to develop their full potential, both for their own prosperity and for the society as a whole, by protecting equal rights under the law. That includes the right of private property, which is recognized clearly in Islam. In speaking to the Muslim world, it is particularly important for the president to emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of women and those of minorities — subjects on which he can be particularly eloquent and persuasive.

The denial of equal rights to women is unjust. It hurts society as a whole when half the population is prevented from achieving its full potential. The countries in the Muslim world that have developed most successfully are those — such as Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia — where women have been able to play a substantial role. Those same countries have also benefited enormously from giving scope to Christian and Jewish minorities to prosper, although the record is imperfect. Turkey’s Jewish minority found refuge there 500 years ago from the Spanish Inquisition. In those days, when Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world, it was also one of the most tolerant.

Unfortunately, today’s trend is in the wrong direction in much of the Muslim world. Church burnings and other intolerant acts are increasing. As a member of a minority himself, Mr. Obama is strongly positioned to speak out against that trend.

More generally, the president could counter the belief that the U.S. is indifferent to the fate of the world’s Muslims or, worse, that we demonize Islam. He could remind his listeners of the many occasions in the past 20 years when the U.S. put its men and women in harm’s way — in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq — to assist people suffering from tyranny or famine who happened to be Muslims.

He could tell them of the deep respect that Americans have for religious belief in general and for Islam as one of the world’s great religions. He could reiterate our understanding that the actions of extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims, as his predecessors emphasized repeatedly.

Hopefully, however, the president will not repeat what he said to Al-Arabiyah television in January about going back to “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.” Throughout the Muslim world that was interpreted as a return to a time when, as President Bush said, the U.S. preferred stability to freedom in the Middle East and ended up with neither.

The president should make clear that the U.S. does not believe that democracy can be imposed by force. Nor should he suggest that stability is unimportant. Free institutions cannot be expected to develop overnight, and certainly not in Egypt. But particularly in Egypt it is appropriate to emphasize that true stability requires giving that country’s persecuted liberal democrats the space to begin growing free institutions, rather than leaving the field entirely to extremists who organize effectively in secret.

One of those persecuted Egyptian liberals, Ayman Nour, recently asked whether Mr. Obama will “confirm his commitment to democracy, or will he appease dictators and aggressors?” One single speech cannot definitively answer that question but hopefully, tomorrow in Cairo, Ayman Nour will be pleased with Barack Obama’s words.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has served as deputy U.S. secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

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What Muslim World?

By J. Scott Carpenter and Soner Cagaptay

Foreignpolicy.com, June 3, 2009

(A version of this article was published concurrently by Hurriyet Daily News.)

Even before U.S. President Barack Obama utters a word of his long-anticipated June 4 address to “the Muslim world,” there is already a problem with the rhetoric. As well meaning as it sounds, the term “Muslim world” is a trap. There is no unified Muslim world. And describing it as such legitimizes the idea that it is “us vs. them” — just the sort of divided world that al Qaeda wants to create.

To see the trouble with the term “Muslim world,” one needs only to try and define it. Who is included in the Muslim world? What countries — or individuals — make the cut, and who defines it? Is half-Muslim Nigeria a part of the Muslim world as much as the Islamic Republic of Iran? And how do different sects in internal conflict, like the Sunni and Shia of Iraq, reconcile their placement in a single “world” to American eyes? Are extremists — such as the Taliban or al Qaeda — lumped together with secular Muslims?

No one questions that a religion known as Islam exists or that many Muslims believe in their global community, the ummah. As a theological reference, however, the ummah is vaguely analogous to the belief that all Christians are part of the body of Christ. It is a powerful spiritual metaphor, but not a visceral part of every believer’s identity. A Muslim in Turkey, for example, might define himself as an Istanbullu first, a Turk second, and a Muslim third — or the other way around, depending on his mood or even the time of day. (When the soccer club Galatasaray is playing, he is only a fan!) No one would claim that Guatemalans, Germans, or Guineans are the same because they are Christians, and it’s equally nonsensical to lump Turks, Trinidadians, and Tunisians together simply because they also happen to be Muslim.

This term is not only an analytical error — it’s also a critical public diplomacy mistake. “Muslim world” unfairly and singularly assigns adherents of Islam into a figurative ghetto. And particularly in the post-September 11, this relegation carries a real moral hazard: By lumping together extremists, secularists, and everyone in between, the term “Muslim world” legitimizes the idea that all of the group’s members are locked in deadly conflict with the non-Islamic world. If this sounds dangerously close to the message through which Islamist ideologues push for jihad, it is. Extremists are the only Muslim group that strongly advocates tying all Muslims together politically, in a united global community. In their ideal world, the modern nation state would be replaced with a new caliphate under Sharia law. Every time the United States speaks to the “Muslim world,” then, it inadvertently legitimizes the extremists’ vision.

Thankfully, President Obama has a chance to get it right. He got off to a good start on May 4 in Ankara, where he admirably addressed the Turkish people as democrats embedded in Europe. He appealed to them as allies in the struggle against Islamist extremism while challenging them on sensitive issues, including reconciling with neighboring Armenia. At the tail end of the speech, however, he made that critical rhetorical slip: “Let me repeat: The United States is not at war with the Muslim world.”

This time, as he speaks on June 4, the “Islamic world” should not make a rhetorical appearance. Instead, Obama could accentuate the rich diversity of Muslim communities around the world, referencing the Sufis of Morocco, the Shiites of Iraq, and the Sunnis of Singapore. He should recognize their accomplishments within their communities while stressing other parts of their identities, such as nationality.

As he did in Turkey, Obama should offer his broad audience a challenge. There are deep problems within Muslim communities around the world. Islamist extremists continue to push their agenda of violence and chaos. Obama should offer encouragement to the British, Egyptian, Algerian, and Iraqi Muslims (among others) who are already fighting back, taking on those extremists and reclaiming their communities. And he should recognize that the Muslim world is a figment of Osama bin Laden’s imagination.

J. Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family fellow and director of Project Fikra at The Washington Institute. Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute

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Image: Shutterstock

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AIJAC expresses appreciation to PM, Leader of the Opposition, for bipartisan stance against extremism and antisemitism