Thursday, June 04, 2009

A time to take sides

Guest post by Hamid M. Khan

(This is Hamid's second post at The Reaction. His first, on Pakistan, can be found here. -- MJWS)

In perhaps one of the most anticipated speeches of his young presidency, President Obama is venturing to Cairo to give an unprecedented address to the Islamic world. Not one to shrink from the unconventional, President Obama, however, has already issued robust salutations to the Islamic world in his inaugural address and in his speech to the Turkish Parliament, not to mention offered his first interview as president to the Arab media. With this unique opportunity, President Obama should do more than offer the prospect of "improved" American-
Islamic relations. Rather, he must challenge the Islamic world in a way only he can.

At the outset, perhaps the most tangible way Obama can immediately improve America's image in the Islamic world is by offering more than a more robust engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, by declaring, in a Kennedyesque fashion, that it should be the goal of the United States to help create an independent Palestinian state within five years. While undoubtedly difficult and unpopular, there are numerous reasons to support such an approach, the least of which is that there is perhaps no greater injustice in the eyes of Muslims than the fate of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, an injustice that galvanizes moderates and extremists alike against the United States.

President Obama, the son of a Muslim and a one-time resident of the world's most populous Islamic nation, should take this opportunity to examine Muslims' own views about Islam. He should remind his audience that he is the elected leader of millions of Muslims. And though a religious minority, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are a successfully integrated part of the political, social, and economic life of the United States, and who are also able practice their religion in peace and largely are proud to call themselves American Muslims.

Obama should not fear to point out as well that despite America's shortcomings, many of the ills that plague the Islamic world cannot be blamed on the United States alone, and that the real enemy of Islam lies within its midst. He should ask Muslims to do some soul-searching about the state of their religion and pointedly ask whether they are satisfied with the perception that Islam — one of the greatest forces civilization has ever known — has come under the control of extremism and violence.

The president should also stress that while his address takes place in Cairo, his comments are not confined to Arab-Muslims, for while Egypt is the most populous Arab state, Arabs make up less than one-fifth of all Muslims in the world. Instead, he should point out that it is time for the Arab world to join the rest of the Islamic world in embracing democracy and a more moderate form of Islam.

In so doing, he should take pains to remind his audience that Islam achieved its "Golden Age" based on widespread education, interaction with other civilizations, and an embracing of diversity of opinions — whether political or religious. He should boldly remind those tuned in that the teachings of Islam are not only compatible with democracy but also codify religious tolerance and teach against terrorism, corruption, and murder. Nor should the president be afraid to invoke the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who himself championed the cause against entrenched authority on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, and the sick, and even women.

These assertions are not aimed at lecturing Muslims of their shortcomings, but rather at reminding them of their own glorious past — a past achieved on their own and centuries before the emergence the United States. It should serve as a reminder that the ills that plague Islam can be solved by what is best about Islam.

Most analysts have argued for a careful, nuanced approach that avoids criticism and, more importantly, avoids the divide that plagues Islam from within. The divide is between those who seek to reform Islam in light of the changing world while maintaining an adherence to the spiritual and religious ethos of Islam and those who seek to drag Islam, by force if necessary, to the unknown depths of history in an attempt to regain a misplaced sense of the past. President Obama should not fear to speak, when few leaders in the West come with his experience, empathy, and level of respect.

President Obama is faced with a choice: He can tip-toe between the moderate forces of modernity and the extremist forces of the past, or he can take sides in the struggle for the soul of Islam by not only elevating America's image to the Islamic world, but, more importantly, by elevating Islam's image of itself.

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 McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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