Barack and Islam: the to-do list
Written for menso.wordpress.com, the Menso Guide to War, on June 6, 2009 President Barack has just given a speech in Cairo intended for an audience of the entire Muslim world. The speech was a good one--sincere, inclusive, friendly--but there is a lot more to be done. Though I do not think Islamic terrorism is America's biggest problem, nor will it ever be, I do think Islamic extremism poses a serious threat to American interests. Those interests include free markets, secularism, democracy and peace. And contrary to popular belief, extremism is caused far less by poverty and religious pluralism than by perceived injustice with no outlet through which to vent. And on this note, we begin Barack's To-Do List for Better Relations with the Islamic World. #1: Encourage freedom and support pluralism in Muslim countries The Barack administration needs to work with its allies among Muslim countries to ensure everyone has a voice. With so many repressive states that are nominally Islamic, and so many of them (again nominally) aligned with the US, Barack and Hillary need to continue the pressure on people like the House of Saud to allow freedom of expression. Eliminating extremism is not a question of democracy per se; indeed, the idea of democracy has become a laughing stock among many Middle Easterners. The unpopular Bush administration promoted democracy as a panacea, and as soon as an Islamic party (Hamas) was "democratically" elected, it refused to recognise it. But pluralism and freedom are still ways to promote peace--if you disagree with me, you can say so without getting arrested. To say they are not suited to Islam is nonsense: they were part of Islamic civilisation for at least 500 years during the Islamic Golden Age. Without pluralism and freedom of expression, Muslim civilisation would never have made such great scientific advances. Saying pluralism and Islam cannot coexist is like saying Muslims speak with one voice. Yet these values are at the root of the debate going
on within Islam today. Having lived in Indonesia, Barack is in a good position to understand and sympathise with Muslims. His charm is also handy. Though I do not like the idea that charm can move mountains, it can. They have won him his popularity up to this point, and have even slightly increased the United States' abysmal image among Muslims. Charm has brought him to this point, but it can take him no further. It has opened up many doors, and Barack must enter with a plan. The focus of his plan must be understanding. #2: Foster cross-cultural understanding Back to the president’s speech. Barack set some things straight about religious freedom in America. “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US 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. So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” (Youtube, 12:00) He addressed the stereotypes many Muslims hold of America and Americans hold of Muslims. He has started the intercultural ball rolling. Other people need to run with it. Start programs that teach, at all ages, about each other’s culture and religion and help them to see each other’s points of view. Let them see and feel the plurality of views among the people, that the other side is not a monolithic or hateful mass, and the new ways of thinking all of us can learn from this interaction. Even the language we use limits our understanding. It can be difficult not to speak and think in terms of “Muslim countries”, “Islamic states” and moderates vs. extremists, but there is so much more to the issues than this thinking implies. We need to realise that, like everywhere, there are nuances in the groups we are talking about that we can work with to achieve goals that benefit everyone.
“And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our god. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” (Youtube, 12:30) Barack has begun to bring us all together in common humanity. Another part of his plan is the prison at Guantanamo Bay. #3: Close Guantanamo Barack said “unequivocally” that he prohibited the use of torture by any forces he commands. This is quite the promise for an American president to make, as it is convenient to invoke the misleading ticking time bomb scenario and to the charge of torture plead patriotism. If no stories of torture emerge under his presidency, we should be impressed by his adherence to principle. He also said, as he has done before, that he will close Guantanamo. Great. When? When everyone else agrees to take the US's prisoners? I am not clear on why the prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be shipped to civilian tribunals in the United States. This is the most logical answer to me. By asking other countries to take them, the US government is asking favours. Charm has made closing Guantanamo a possibility, but it will not ensure the safe transfer and fair trial of its prisoners without costs to the US's international political capital. And that capital will run out even faster if he does not do what he promised on the campaign trail. #4: Bring the boys home from Iraq Barack has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2012. This may or may not be a good idea; suffice it to say, it is a promise, and fulfilling it will bring him credibility (right in time for his reelection). As part of the wider War on Terror, which many Muslims see as a war on their religion, the war in Iraq was framed as the way to keep the US safer. Having inflamed many a Mohamedan mind with images of fear, torture and killing, it has clearly had the opposite effect.
Part of the reason is the us vs. them attitude exhibited by all the War's protagonists. We have a tendency to view struggles as good against evil, and I need to know who everyone around me supports so that I can know who the good guys are. But conflict is rarely about good and evil but two groups who do not want to listen to each other and admit they are wrong. Barack seems to realise this, and when he speaks of reconciliation with the Islamic world, he is trying to forge a wider "us". Bringing the troops home from Iraq would mean that one of the biggest symbols of "them" to so many people, the continuation of a war on Islam, will be over. That is, unless American troop presences elsewhere become increasingly seen as illegitimate. The wrong moves in Afghanistan could reverse progress on Barack's goodwill efforts. #5: Win Afghanistan and Pakistan The United States military, in conjunction with Pakistan's, has an incredibly difficult task ahead of it: stabilise perhaps the most dangerous region on earth. They have scored some military victories, but the real question is, are they winning hearts and minds? This is war among the people, not between states, and it is not clear that technology and manpower will end it. What is needed are hospitals, schools, entrepreneurship, legitimate government, grassroots organisations and the rule of law. These are not possible outcomes in the short, election-focused, American political attention span. Barack must make skeptical Muslims realise the benefits of this war, which will be very hard. Perhaps even harder, he also needs to show progress. “[W]e plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced…. [W]e are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.” (Youtube, 20:16) Will it be enough? Likewise, Barack must sell this war realistically to the American people. The American public needs to understand that Afghanistan is a twenty, thirty, forty-year project. It will cost more money and more lives. If they are not clear on these points, they will demand
the troops return home as soon as there is an Afghani equivalent of the Tet Offensive. If that happens, Afghanistan will become an oppressive, totalitarian Islamic state, a hotbed of extremism and America's worst nightmare. It may go the way of Iran, or it may go a lot further. Ironically, Iran is a potential ally in defusing the Islamist threat on its borders. #6: Stop antagonising Iran That is just what the hardliners want you to do. When governments feel threatened, many, especially those whose economies are booming, will act tough. If their nation is threatened, proud nationalists in Iran will vote in a hawkish government, on the belief that it is better positioned to protect them. Pushing Iran on any major issue will give Iranian government hawks just the backing they need to escalate the country’s military and nuclear development. A conciliatory approach, however, will give liberals room to manoeuver in Iranian politics, and the results could be a partner in the wider fight against extremism. It is very unlikely the US and Iran will get into any direct conflict, as I have said before; but Iran could still put a stop to Barack’s plans in the Muslim world. If, on the other hand, the US reached out to Iran as a partner in the wider struggle against extremism, it may gain from it. It would be seen as less threatening to Muslims as once believed. Iran’s government might look petty if it rejected the outreach; or it might look justified. Iran’s people may perceive a bigger threat in the form of the equally belligerent Israel. With a lot of effort, Barack could smooth over the tensions between these two. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue would not hurt. #7: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict But how? Does he have a new road map? Will he try to resurrect an old one? Barack proposes a two-state solution. Is this idea viable? Creative, new ideas could be encouraged. Does he and his team have any new ideas, such as some of the ones shot down here, on any of the complicated issues? Will the president lead peace negotiations? Will he continue to back Israel unconditionally? If so, and it certainly seems so given his actions since his election and his use of the word “unbreakable” to describe the US-Israeli
relationship, what are the consequences for the Palestinians’ security? For example, is the American government willing to provide more humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories? What would it take for it to intervene to stop an Israeli offensive in its territories or neigbours? Will American-led progress elsewhere among Muslims make finding a resolution easier? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It might take a lot longer than eight years, but if Barack can move ahead on a resolution between the longtime rivals, he will have done his best. #8: Stop calling the United States a Christian nation Every president the United States has ever had has invoked the Christian god in his speeches. It is time to stop throwing bones to the Christian majority of the United States and to start acknowledging what it really is: a pluralist nation. Actually, Barack has already done this one. So he is well on his way. This task completed, perhaps more Muslim Americans will emerge as political leaders, making American politics more pluralist, and thereby wiser. In his speech, President Barack went into details about how American Muslims have helped make America great. “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” (Youtube, 8:31) Barack and his administration have a daunting to-do list. Can he complete all these tasks and realise our goals of a more peaceful and just world? He has started many of them already, and eight years is a long time in the modern world. But anything could derail progress: another major terrorist attack in the name of god on American soil, broken promises, American domestic politics, nuclear weapons here, a collapsed state there. But I have confidence that the Barack administration can maintain the support and good judgement it needs to resolve one of the major conflicts of our time, between the US and Islam.