Obama’s Al-Azhar Agenda

Some have called it the real Seven-point Agenda. It addressed issues that were/are both current and touchy: extremism and terrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, democracy, the status of women, economic empowerment, etc. Out of them all, the issues of violent extremism and the Question of Palestine have been receiving the most attention, not least because of their global impact whose immediacy has been proved over and over gain. In fact, the whole world had looked forward to Obama’s Cairo speech with great anticipation. Not that the theme of the speech was not guessed beforehand, considering what he had said during his first trip to Europe last April and what he had told the Saudi King on the eve of his arrival in Egypt.

As it turned out, Obama did not disappoint his listeners across the world yesterday. He spoke with an erudition and surprising know-how about his subject matter not seen in many decades of American presidency. Those that were in doubt about his depth, finesse and sincerity of purpose – and there are millions of them especially in the Muslim world – must have had second thoughts. His commitment to world peace in the post-Bush era is well known.

What the Cairo declaration seeks to show is that both the United States and Islam – a religion founded on a universal message of peace – can agree on the way forward on the path of entrenching lasting peace on earth. The president has sought to debunk the age-old notion of the “clash of civilisations” in which eggheads like Francis Fukuyama dwelt on the inevitability of cultural collision due to a wide range of irreconcilable differences.

My worry about Obama’s stance as he made clear yesterday is that it is Muslims who need to understand that “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” What the president did not say is the origin of the disagreement that has since become a hitherto intractible crisis between Islam and the West. The question is: did Muslims just wake up one day and decide to confront the West? The answer is no. Islam is in conflict with the West simply because of the injustices that the West imposed on weaker nations, especially on Muslims wherever they might be. In most instances they came as a result of a deep-rooted islamophobia. An average Westerner had, for many centuries, regarded a Muslim as “the other,” an alien, a strange being. Nowhere was this exemplified more than in the creation of the state of Israel. That creation, which Zionists began to crow about as the “independence” of Israel, the dislocation of the Palestinians from their land, and all the iniquities that followed the Israeli occupation of Palestine were a fallout of that deeply-ingrained feeling. While Great Britain was the prime mover of the original creation of Israel, a non-existent nation before 1947, it was Uncle Sam that gave it most of what it required to grow up from infancy to a ferocious adulthood. Successive American governments had considered Israel as an extension of the American nation. All the United Nations resolutions enacted to solve the problem or, at best, reduce the pains it brought, were shunned by Israel, and nobody could do anything about it. Hence the Intifada and all the horrors associated with it.

Such injustices were legion. They could be seen in many Muslim lands. In Algeria and recenly in Somalia, political parties that appeared to U.S. administrations as Islamic won elections in free and fair contests, but they were blocked and or demonised by U.S. propagandists as extremist governments. This stance became more pronounced after the World War when the West seemed to lack a concrete enemy to fight. Islam, because of its age-old civilisation, became a ready whipping boy, so to say, to many an American policymaker.

Meanwhile, the American people, on whose behalf U.S. agents fought anything “Islamic” abroad, were wretchedly ignorant of the real issues. The truth is that while the U.S. boasts of the largest and most sophisticated channels of mass communication, its peoples are kept ignorant of the real issues abroad by their governments, journalists and “civil society” groups. And because majority of Americans have not travelled abroad, lived and interacted amongst other peoples, they swallowed hook, line and sinker whatever stereotypes they were fed through the mass media and other fora. That made it easy for America to manipulate the truth about Muslims, with coinages like “fundamentalists,” “extremists” and “terrorists.”

The sad event of 9/11 was a reaction to perceived Western injustices by a segment of Muslims. Such a segment, of course, is a powerful minority among Muslims and does not represent the interest or belief of the rest. Majority of Muslims are peace-loving, taught by their religion to co-exist with the faithful of other religions in many areas of human endeavour. President Obama is latching on Islam’s universal message of peace to isolate the extremists among the Muslims. He may succeed in this, I think, only if he matches rhetoric with action. Across the Muslim world there are millions who desire to live peacefully with their neighbours. America needs to come off clean in its commitment to ensuring this through concrete action.

As I argued in this space soon after Obama’s Ankara speech (“Obama and Rebranding of America, LEADERSHIP, April 10), most of the bad image brand America acquired in the last decade had to do with its treatment of Muslims. Obama has drawn a roadmap for the new relationship between not only his country but also the rest of the West and Muslims. But it isn’t enough for Obama to simply deliver pleasing rhetoric; he must follow them up with action. In that piece, I argued that the determining point to gauge a genuine rapprochement between between the West and Islam is, indeed, the US’ handling of the Palestinian question in the months to come.

Is the U.S. (read: Obama) ready to force the hawkish government of Benjamin Netanyahu to recognise the Palestians’ right to a homeland, with East Jerusalem as their capital? The rhetoric by Obama yesterday about Israel’s special place in the American psyche was a disturbing rehash of the old argument by past U.S. governments. If he cannot successfully push for the two-state option that he canvasses today, then forget it; it would be near-impossible to isolate the extremists who are always looking for such weaknesses to advance their cause while trying to persuade the majority to support them.

On the other hand it was cheering to hear President Obama expressing commitment to righting the other major wrongs in the U.S. foreign policy: the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Withdrawing the marines from those countries and allowing the people to manage their own lives would assure Muslims that America is no longer the brute others consider it to be. That should be followed up with concrete action on the treatment of Muslims in other Muslim countries and in the West. Surely that would encourage the Muslims to believe in Obama’s promises and see the need for unity. It would help isolate the extremists, forcing them to remember the teachings of the holy Qur’an that emphasise the mutual respect for human dignity and the life of all people.

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