Obama’s speech to Muslims at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University was very good and very needed. It was a version of Bush’s speeches to the same audience. But did it truly address the reality of the Muslim world?
Obama said some genuinely helpful things. He promoted democratic ideals in the Middle East, but without an “our way or the highway” tone that turns off Muslims. He reassured Muslims that those in the West don’t simply discount them (they are sensitive and are sick of being belittled). He encouraged their better elements.
It’s good that a U.S. president did so in Cairo in a widely watched speech. But as The Washington Times pointed out, Obama wasn’t the first president to do so.
“Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America,” said Obama.
“America counts millions of Muslims among our citizens. Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” said Bush at Washington’s Islamic Center Sept. 17, 2001.
“The United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it,” said Obama.
“Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes,” said Bush.
“Let there be no doubt,” said Obama. “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”
“It is untenable,” said Bush in 2002, “for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation.”
Said President Obama this year: “There are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”
Said President Bush last year: ”Some say any state that holds an election is a democracy. But true democracy requires vigorous political parties allowed to engage in free and lively debate.”
People say Obama might have gone too far in embracing Islam.
The same people said the same thing about Bush when he said, “Islam is peace.”
President Obama, who is following a troop-withdrawal plan in Iraq, said: “So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other.”
President Bush, who first enacted the plan Obama is following, said: “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”
Obama’s speech was more articulate, included a warmer, more personal introduction and was certainly more popular with media voices. But it didn’t break new ground. In fact, it shared Bush’s recent reluctance to directly engage on religious rights.
In his first term, Bush would add freedom of religion into his Obama-esque appraisal of the Middle East.
“We believe it is a tragedy of history that in the Middle East — which gave the world great gifts of law and science and faith — so many have been held back by lawless tyranny and fanaticism,” he said. “We believe that when all Middle Eastern peoples are finally allowed to live and think and work and worship as free men and women, they will reclaim the greatness of their own heritage.”
But then, when Saddam Hussein was gone, Christians faced a crisis in Iraq. Post-war Iraq became a land of Christian martyrs. Mosul Archbishop Rahho and Father Ragheed Ganni both famously paid the ultimate price to stay with their flock.
It was good for Obama to do what Bush did, and demand that the West not caricature Islam by simply calling it evil. But the truth is, we did bring democracy to Iraq — a democracy from which Christians had to flee or risk their lives.
On the subject of human rights, Obama was positively unhelpful. Not only did he all but ignore persecution of Christians, but he also painted a false, rosy picture.
“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance,” he said. “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.”
The message is clear: The West is the place of the Inquisition. Muslim countries are places of tolerance. Of course, the reality is the opposite. Even secular historians are admitting that the sad history of Church-sponsored inquisitions has been exaggerated into a caricature. And whatever Indonesia was like in his childhood, it is today known to Christians as the place where three Christian schoolgirls were recently beheaded on their way to school.
To his credit, Obama did mention the plight of the Copts to an audience that must not have liked to hear it. But Obama’s words on human rights were brief and focused on Western failings. You wouldn’t know from this speech that the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom’s list of countries of particular concern is dominated by Muslim nations. To ignore this cold reality is a serious error in a 6,000-plus word speech that aims to be comprehensive of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations.
It’s noble to speak to the better angels in someone’s nature — but not to ignore severe injustice in the service of wishful thinking.
In his recent trip to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI also praised Islam and stressed what we have in common. “Here the paths of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet,” he said at Jerusalem’s Dome on the Rock. “Each believes in one God, creator and ruler of all. Each recognizes Abraham as a forefather.”
He called Muslims to a greater respect for other religions.
“ecause it is our common human dignity which gives rise to universal human rights, they hold equally for every man and woman, irrespective of his or her religious, social or ethnic group,” he said May 9 at a mosque in Jordan. “The right of religious freedom extends beyond the question of worship and includes the right — especially of minorities — to fair access to the employment market and other spheres of civic life.”
Benedict sees the potential for religious harmony in Muslim nations. By refusing to pretend it’s already here, he may help realize it.