Monday, June 08, 2009

The beginning of dialogue

Guest post by Hamid M. Khan

(You can find Hamid's first two Reaction guest posts here and here. His bio is below. -- MJWS)

It was risky and laughable the moment he uttered it as a candidate, the notion that a president could venture into the Islamic world, immediately after taking office, and attempt to alter America’s image in the hearts and minds of Muslims. Upon reflection, however, not only did President Obama succeed but it is likely that his Cairo address will long be remembered not only as a turning point but as a litmus test for future relations between Islam and the West.

For all the consternation about the precise content of his Cairo address, it is worth considering that the president has already succeeded in elevating America’s image without uttering a single word. The mere fact that Barack Obama, the son of a Muslim, one-time resident of most populous Islamic nation in the world, and the first non-white major-party presidential candidate, was elected president of the United States by a wide margin decimates caricatures extremists have created about America. And the fact that he has repeatedly sought respectful, but frank, dialogue with the Islamic world since his inauguration, including repeated overtures to Iran, only helps further erode the notion that America invariably is at odds with Islam, a fact made only more clear by the desperate attempts by al Qaeda to personally disparage Obama at every possible opportunity.

Obama’s success was the also the product of prodigious timing. Not only was the president well-suited to give such an address because he was sufficiently removed from the perceived transgressions of the Bush Administration, he possesses the political skill and the diplomatic daring to create the precise climate in which to speak candidly and forcefully to a captive audience. Thus it was no accident that, while coming early in his presidency, the Cairo address came on the heels of plans to close the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay and withdraw from Iraq, and following a call on Israel to halt settlement activity in the West Bank. Thus, not only did Obama deliberately seek to quell the fury surrounding some of the incendiary issues of the past to focus attention to his overarching theme, he demonstrated an uncanny but requisite ability to tackle some of the thorniest national security issues facing the United States.

The president also succeeded because he leveled the ideological playing field. Drawing upon his masterful oratorical skills, along with his unique personal heritage, Obama nimbly invoked the Qur’an and Islamic history to call upon Muslims (and commit the United States) to move beyond the insipid stereotypes that have hamstrung the past and threaten to perpetuate the sense of mutual distrust by starting anew through values common to all. Thus, Obama, for a variety of reasons, was uniquely able to use both his position as president and his personal intimacy with Islam to frame long-standing controversies as matters to be solved by shared values. Consequently, Obama has helped frame current controversies such as women’s rights and religious tolerance and future controversies on a path that shifts religious and ideological differences to the background, allowing for more robust, rational solutions to emerge.

Another reason for Obama’s success was his willingness to be provocative. Many conservatives viewed Obama’s posture in Cairo as simply too apologetic. Upon closer inspection, however, while Obama took pains to admit the wrongs of the past, he also positioned himself to be able more effectively to challenge his audience to consider its own moral position through the lens of Islam’s own values before questioning that of the United States.

For example, while too much attention has been paid to the expected rebuke the hard-line Israeli government received concerning the need for a two-state solution and the issue of settlements, he also thoughtfully reminded Palestinians -- and all Muslims -- that the path of violence will never help them achieve the moral standing they seek. Instead, he rightly pointed out, consistent with Islam’s own teachings, that the example of non-violence was the most robust and lasting means to achieve a Palestinian state. Thus, Obama demonstrated a profound willingness to sacrifice previously intransigent positions of the past if they offered some possibility of producing a positive long-term result. In so doing, he demonstrated America’s larger intention to step away from tactical gains in exchange for a consistent strategic gain.

Obama also succeeded because he offered needed clarity. For example, he was forthright in his reaffirmation that the United States would always react to violence to the innocent by recounting 9/11 in stark terms and drawing a bright line against the religious extremism expressed by the Taliban and al Qaeda. And again, despite the consternation of some, he re-emphasized the U.S.’s unwavering friendship with Israel. Finally, even if understated, the president’s defense of democracy was clear and, perhaps most importantly, sent a subtle but important signal to moderate Islamists, saying that the United States would respect all peacefully expressed views and the winners of any fair election, provided they abided by the rule of law, a position never fully accepted by the previous administration.

In all, while Obama injected bright-line approaches throughout his speech, he left other matters, such as a willingness to engage with Iran, on the table, thereby clarifying America’s position in the world that many thought had been abandoned during the past eight years.

Also significant was the address’s comprehensive approach. While some criticized Obama for being scant on details, few in the audience doubted his -- and therefore America’s -- sincerity with respect to the issues at hand. The president dedicated the longest single speech of his presidency to discussing extremism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nuclear arms, democracy, freedom of religion, women’s rights, and economic opportunity before an unlikely audience. He also took some by surprise in his rightful defense of Christian minorities along with his willingness to engage in long-overdue economic development with the Islamic world that looks beyond oil.

Finally, while some may dismiss the president’s address as an over-hyped campaign event filled with lofty rhetoric and empty platitudes, it is important to remember that an ideological war is won on the strength of ideas -- and, by the president’s own admission, this was simply a beginning. However much pundits would like to criticize, it is evident that Obama has already set a new tone for dialogue with his personal willingness to enter a thicket few have ever dared to venture into on such a significant scale.

As the attempts to undermine the address by means of false controversy dissipate, Obama’s address will likely become a framework for our ongoing dialogue with Islam, which could, as the president put it, “remake this world.”

Hamid M. Khan is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Law School, where he teaches Islamic Law, and an associate with the firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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