Burnt Offerings: President Obama Addresses the Islamic World
From time to time I feel like presenting a piece that should be read. This is one of them -- sent to me by a very close friend in Congress.
Obama's Cairo Message: Limited Audience, Limited Impact
1. President Barack Obama's address at the Cairo University on June 4, 2009, which was billed in advance by his staff as a historic message of goodwill and reconciliation to the Islamic world, had a limited audience. Though projected as an address to the Islamic world, it was largely an address to the Arab world and focused largely on issues of interest to the Arabs.
2. The Arabs constitute a minority in the Islamic world. Non-Arab Muslims living in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia constitute the majority. The issues, which agitate them, are different from the issues which agitate the Arab world. Osama bin Laden understands this better than Obama and his advisers. That was why in his audio message released through Al Jazeera a day before Obama's Cairo address, bin Laden focused on issues of immediate concern to the non-Arab Muslims in the Af-Pak region such as the large-scale displacement of Pashtuns from the tribal areas of Pakistan. By focusing on their plight and by holding the Americans responsible for it, he sought to make it certain that the anti-American anger in the Af-Pak region will increase rather than decrease.
3. Outside India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia, the attitude of the Muslims towards the US is characterized by feelings of hostility or anger or skepticism. There is hardly any feeling of empathy or warmth. There are various reasons for the negative feelings towards the US. Some are country-specific, some are region specific and some are ethnicity specific. The negative feelings of the Arabs towards the US may be due to the Palestine issue and the perceived US support for Israel, but Palestine and Israel are not such burning issues in the non-Arab Islamic world.
4. Obama's address seemed to have been constructed around the belief that the Muslims constitute a monolithic community and that their actions are motivated by certain issues of common concern to all the Muslims of the world. This is a wrong belief. The Muslims are not a monolithic community and there is no common thread uniting the anger motivating the Muslims in different countries and different regions. There are Muslims and Muslims and issues and issues.
5. If Obama wanted to address the Muslims of the world, Cairo was the wrong place from which to seek to do so. There was a time when Egypt was seen as the beacon of the Arab world. It is no longer so. Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organizations project Egypt and its leaders as apostate. President Hosni Mubarak is a very unpopular Arab leader. Obama going to Cairo to deliver the address is seen by large sections of pro-Al Qaeda and pro-Taliban leaders as a leader of the American infidels traveling to the country of apostates to deliver an address to the Muslims from a platform provided by the apostates.
6. There are two ways of judging the impact -- what has been and what will be the impact on those Muslims who have taken to terrorism against the US and other countries of the world -- and what will be the impact on ordinary Muslims who stay away from the so-called global jihad, but at the same time do not nurse any feelings of empathy for the US?
7. The impact on the world of global jihad will be very little. Their views towards the US have been formed as a result of years of brainwashing in extremist mosques and madrasas. They are not going to change as a result of a beautifully-drafted speech beautifully delivered before an audience carefully assembled by the so-called apostates. They will continue to fight against the US, which will have to defeat them in the battlefield. bin Laden's projection of the US President as Bush in Obama's clothing will make a greater impact on the minds of the jihadis than the words and phrases of Obama.
8. The jihadi behavior till now was influenced by the visuals, which came out of Iraq and Afghanistan. As the impact of those visuals decreases, Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organizations are trying to exploit the visuals of the plight of nearly three million internally displaced Pashtuns, driven out of their homes by a Pakistani war ordered by the US as bin Laden projected it in his message.
9. The impact on the ordinary Muslims outside pockets of urban elite will not be significant. Ordinary Muslims are not so naïve as to be impressed by a couple of quotations from the Holy Koran. Muslims outside India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia are not enamored of democracy. They have nothing against authoritarian rulers, provided they care for the ordinary Muslims. Mubarak is not an example of a caring ruler. Among Muslim rulers blessed and supported by the US, there is hardly anyone whom one can call caring for the common Muslims. The ordinary Muslims will judge the US by the company it keeps in the Islamic world than by the speeches of Obama.
10. Obama's speech may help him back home by pushing up his popularity. Americans love such orations. It may not help the US much in the Islamic world. The use of soft power to counter pernicious ideologies coming out of the Islamic world is important. They have to be countered in a more subtle and sophisticated manner through personal interactions, dialogue in small groups, radio and TV programs, Internet chats etc. A Cairo-style address is not suited for this purpose.
11. A mix of Wahabism and Deobandism of the Pakistani brand is the driving force of the global jihad and of the hostility towards the US. Deoband is in India. The Indian brand of Deobandism was benign and continues to be benign The Pakistani brand is venomous and behind much of the negative ideas influencing the attitudes and conduct of millions of Muslims. Unless the pernicious Wahabi-Deobandi ideas emanating from Pakistan are countered in an intelligent manner, the divide between the Muslims and the non-Muslims will continue to widen. How to do so? That is the question that should occupy the minds of US policy-makers. (5-6-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai.)