President Obama’s speech yesterday in Cairo was aptly titled “New Beginning.” Its promising new tone is encouraging, but needs to be followed by a change of heart for a reluctant State Department and a vigorous, substantive outreach to Muslims. Obama’s new tone adopts a subtle but important new way of speaking about Muslims that may help to marginalize radical extremists. Yet this shift was not immediately apparent from news accounts.
I first heard about Obama’s speech to “the Muslim world” from National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” top-of-the-hour report. It expressed the same impression conveyed by many news reports on the speech. From what the news outlets said, it seemed as if the United States government would remain trapped in post-9/11 strategic communication follies of feeding into Osama bin Laden’s “Muslims versus non-Muslims” narrative. For those first moments yesterday as I made my morning cup of coffee, it seemed, sadly, as if nothing had changed, as if this would be no “new beginning” at all.
The actual text of Obama’s speech, however, gives a much different picture. Obama did not fall into the familiar trap of referring to Muslims as if they were part of some entity in opposition to the United States called “the Muslim world”—a phrase which creates a seeming monolith which is wholly separate. Rather, in this speech Obama dropped the terminology of “the Muslim world,” and in its place he used phrases such as “Muslim communities” and “Muslims around the world” to convey the complexity of modern, lived Islam. When reflected in policy changes, these subtle but significant rhetorical shifts spell trouble for the Osama bin Ladens of this world.
In his speech, President Obama never referred to “Muslim countries.” This was spot-on. Instead he referred to Indonesia as an “overwhelmingly Muslim country” and to Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia as “Muslim-majority countries.” When he spoke of other topics, such as the vitally important topic of expanding literacy for girls, he referred again to “Muslim-majority countries.”
Faith is something held by an individual, not a political entity. The political decisions of a dictator such as Egypt’s President Mubarak represent his political regime, not the religion of Islam, not the religion of the millions of non-Muslims in Egypt, and not the religion of the Muslim intellectuals his regime bullies, censors, and imprisons. Today there are vibrant debates underway in and between diverse Muslim communities, in spite of efforts by authoritarian regimes such as the Saudis to crush the independent voices among Muslim intellectuals and artists.
Osama bin Laden views Islam as a simplistic monolith, of which he is the self-appointed “representative.” The reality is that Muslims live out their faith in a multitude of diverse cultures, communities, and continents.
Oh, would that the White House would notify the State Department of this! At the time of Obama’s speech, www.america.gov, a primary platform for the State Department’s communication to foreign audiences, headlined, “Obama Speaks to Muslim World from Cairo.” Granted, by 1:30pm EST the State Department changed the headline on the English version of the site to “Obama Seeks New U.S. Start with Muslims Worldwide.” Yet the story was covered also on the Arabic, French, and Spanish language portions of the State Department’s site where by the afternoon the headline about his speech still featured the phrases “the Islamic world” and “the Muslim world.”
This is not a matter of linguistic nit-picking. This really is of strategic significance, both on the level of what message we send with terminology, and what message we send when the White House and the State Department communications offices, located just blocks from each other, fail to communicate with each other on what is being heralded as one of the most important speeches yet of President Obama’s administration.
I was reminded of the importance of Obama’s speech when, that same day, I experienced a concrete reminder of the integrated role of some Muslims in America. Yesterday I had a medical appointment at a facility where a female Muslim doctor provides care for me. She is part of the society in which I live, not part of some separate “Muslim world,” and I am better off because of this. I benefit from her intellect and her willingness to apply her intellect to a profession of public service. And she benefits from freedom for women to pursue education and contribute to society here in America, and from freedom to practice her faith freely, wearing a headscarf to work if she wants to. This doctor does not live in some separate realm; she and I are part of the same world, the same society, the same citizenry.
Are there Muslims who, by contrast, do not engage, do not serve, and who fight against our society? Yes, to be sure there are. But let’s not conspire to help the latter prevail. Osama bin Laden and his allies would like to perpetuate a narrative of divisiveness, of “the Muslim world” against everyone else.
Those of us who aspire to a world in which freedom and peaceful pluralism expand, rather than contract, need to stop abetting the Osama bin Laden narrative of “Islam vs. everyone else” with falsely monolithizing phrases such as “the Muslim world.” Let’s hope that the Obama administration figures out how to move information a few hundred yards from the White House to the State Department, and that along with the White House the State Department will come down on the side of freedom and peaceful pluralism.