Barack Hussein Obama: A View From Israel
“Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The truth is that America and Islam are not exclusive. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” – Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009
“‘Brotherhood’ invited to Obama’s speech by US…. The administration insisted that at least 10 members of the Muslim Brotherhood … be allowed to attend his speech in Cairo” – The Atlantic, June 3, 2009
Let me begin with two apparently contradictory statements. First, I must say that I am not one of Barack Obama’s most vehement critics. Indeed, at times I find some of the criticism hurled at him both distasteful and unpersuasive.
That said, I am convinced that his reelection for a second term is liable to be a disaster of epic proportions – with incalculable, probably irreversible, repercussions for both Israel and for US interests, at least as they have been commonly perceived.
Three years ago
Almost exactly three years have elapsed between Obama’s June 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo, designed to be a US gesture of outreach to the Muslim world, and the Islamist takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brothers and their more radical coreligionists, the Salafis.
The transformation of America’s relationship with the Islamic world was one of the centerpieces – arguably the centerpiece – of the Obama foreign policy, led by a president who ostensibly had more familiarity and firsthand experience with Islam than any of his predecessors. As Obama proclaimed:
“I have known Islam on three continents…. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”
With the presidential elections less than 20 weeks away, this might be an appropriate juncture for a review of the administration’s Mideast policy to date, and an assessment of what course it might take in the future.
Unfiltered political instincts?
Much water has flown down the Nile in the three years since Obama’s address at Cairo University shortly after his election. But precisely because it was delivered when he was still unencumbered by domestic constraints and foreign frustrations, it perhaps reflected most accurately the unfiltered essence of the political instincts he brought to the Oval Office.
Although he did chide the Muslim world for the lack of political freedom, gender equality and religious freedom, the overall tenor of the address was one of glowing accolades for Islamic achievement and imaginative apologetics for its failures, based on questionable, indeed at times fanciful, interpretations of history … as one excerpt illustrates.
When Obama launched into a long enumeration of Muslim contribution to the development of the US, declaring that “since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in our government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities,” he might have avoided at least one incongruous reference: “They have built our tallest building.”
After all when it comes to America’s “tallest buildings,” the Muslim role best remembered is hardly likely to be their part in building them.
Early indicative symptoms?
The administration’s actions leading up to the speech – particularly seen in retrospect – may have exposed some edifying proclivities early on.
To the chagrin of the Egyptian authorities, Obama insisted on inviting the Muslim Brotherhood to his address, which reportedly infuriated Hosni Mubarak, who did not attend the event.
Although several sources suggested that this might be due to his advanced age and/or grief over the death of his grandson Muhammad three weeks previously, his absence was described by the British Guardian as “strikingly” noticeable.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss this as trivial happenstance. But given Obama’s brusque abandonment of Washington’s erstwhile staunch ally, it is not difficult to understand why some might see in this incident an ominous presage of things to come barely 18 months later. In view of recent events it would be hard to dismiss such musings as implausible.
Cause for raised eyebrows?
There was much in Obama’s “New Beginning” address that could give legitimate cause for raised eyebrows. Take for instance this passage: “The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars.”
While the reference to “conflict and religious wars” is indisputably true, the bit about “centuries of coexistence and cooperation” is a little more obscure and it would have been helpful had Obama elaborated on where precisely he identified this spirit of alleged prolonged interfaith amitié taking place.
Ever since the 8th century (and arguably even before), Islam and the West have been engaged in bloody conflict, from the Muslim assault on Europe from the west, the south and east though the Iberian peninsula and southern France, southern Italy and the Balkans.
Then there were the Crusades; then the Barbary wars – involving the US – which brings us to the 19th century. The 20th century was also hardly free of Muslim conflict with the West, particularly the fierce battles between Allies and the Ottoman Empire which allied itself with Germany in World War I.
There is, of course, the Muslim-European cooperation later in the 1930s and ’40s, when the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al- Husseini, embraced the Nazi doctrine, forged an alliance with Hitler and enthusiastically recruited Balkan Muslims to Muslim SS divisions, which he convinced local Muslim leaders would be in the interests of Islam.
But as it is doubtful that this is what the US president was invoking, we are left to puzzle over precisely which period and which place he had in mind when he referred to “centuries of coexistence and cooperation” between Islam and the West.
Ignorance or apologetics?
Obama’s characterization of Islam is totally at odds not only with the anecdotal evidence regarding the realities being reported daily from across the Muslim world, whether in Algeria or Afghanistan, whether in Syria or Sudan or Somalia, in Iran and in Iraq, and even in Indonesia where he spent some of his childhood.
It flies in the face of statistical data as well.
He claims: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. America and Islam share common principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Well, not according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted just before the Arab Spring erupted which found massive public support for cruel and primitive punishments such as stoning for adultery; whipping/amputation for theft; and the death penalty for apostasy.
Levels of support surpassed 80 percent in Egypt and Pakistan, reaching about 75% in Jordan and over 50% in Nigeria. Even in Indonesia there was significant endorsement of these measures of Islamic “tolerance,” with sizable minorities of up to 40% backing them.
Obama seems wildly out of touch with realities in his erstwhile homeland. He stated: “I saw it [Islam’s proud tradition of tolerance] firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.”
Compare this with the description of the prevailing level of “tolerance” in the country, set out in a ruling handed down by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (February 4, 2010): “Christian churches throughout Indonesia have been burned, bombed, and vandalized by Muslim extremists often accompanied by threats, such as ‘Death to all Christians.’” Hmmm.
The ‘colonialism’ canard
Obama offers the following explanation for the sad state of affairs between the West and Islam that followed the previously alleged “centuries of coexistence and cooperation,” suggesting that “more recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims.”
This position raises troubling issues.
For example, while it is true that much of the Middle East was under imperial rule for centuries, this was mostly Muslim imperialism – i.e. the Ottoman Empire.
With perhaps the exception of North Africa, Western colonialism was imposed for a relatively short period after WWI, and ended soon after World War II. This hardly seems long enough to engender the indelible Islamic enmity we see today.
So if complaints are to be lodged regarding colonialist deprivation of Muslim rights and opportunities, shouldn’t they be directed at the… Muslim imperialists? Strangely, the two areas that comprise the crucibles of today’s most extreme anti-Western Islam were barely touched by colonialism: The Arabian peninsula and Iran.
Although neither have endured any – including Western – imperial rule of any consequence, the former birthed the Sunniderivative version of Islamic radicalism and the latter the Shia-derivative version. This fact sits uneasily with Obama’s diagnosis of ascribing recent tension between Muslims and the West to colonialism.
No call to ‘Kill for Krishna’
One might well ask why the iniquities of colonialism have not afflicted, say, Hindimajority India, whose people were certainly “denied rights and opportunities” under the yoke of British Imperialism in the same way.
Why do we not hear cries of “Kill for Krishna” or “Ganesh is Great” from embittered Hindi terrorists blowing themselves up in crowded buses, markets, cafes and mosques as we do across the Muslim world – including in neighboring Pakistan? Or see aggrieved followers of Shiva embarking on a global holy war to subjugate all to the Hindu creed? Why has India been able to put its colonial past behind it and become a vibrant economic juggernaut? Why has it not allowed itself to remain tethered to the past and mired in homicidal frustration? Indeed, since by far the greatest victims of Muslim violence are other Muslims, rights and opportunities allegedly denied by foreign occupiers seven decades ago seem a poor explanation for such horrific conduct.
Modernity as culprit
Obama not only singles out colonialism as the root of Muslim tensions with the West.
He points an accusatory finger at phenomena that in some respects might be considered the diametric inverse – modernity and globalization – declaring that “the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”
Some might consider that strange. After all, Islam is the youngest of all major religions, being founded centuries – even in some cases, millennia – after Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. So why would the newest religion find that the developments of modernity threaten its traditions in a manner that apparently do not threaten the traditions of faiths far more ancient? Why do they not generate the same tensions with the West that we find in the case of the Muslim faith? Could it perhaps be that Islam is fundamentally incompatible not only with modernity but with anything that is not Islam, and that Obama cannot – or worse, will not – recognize this?
Why all this matters
The fact that a US president could give such a patently inaccurate assessment of Islam and the realities in the Muslim world – especially one supposedly intimately familiar with both – is deeply disturbing for Israel.
Remember, it was he who declared that the “partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”
What drove him to do this is crucial and what motivates the administration is of definite significance as the 2012 elections approach. After all, if the pro-Israel elements apparent in some of the recent actions of his administration are the result of perceived electoral constraints alone, the issue of how Israel will be treated by a second-term president, with a fundamentally adversarial agenda and free of reelection concerns, becomes acute.
In this regard, Obama’s primal sentiments toward Israel should be assessed within the framework of his overall weltanschauung. In many ways the inputs that have gone into shaping his geo-political credo cannot but generate a sense of unease – both in terms of his associates and of his formative environment.
His perception of the international role the US should play, the nature of its interests and the manner in which they should be pursued seems to be a dramatic departure from that of most of his predecessors, including a deepseated belief that Islam is not inherently inimical to American values.
There is, thus, a distinct possibility that Israel could face a second-term president who is fundamentally unmoored from America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, a heritage, which despite occasional periods of tensions, was for decades the elemental underpinning of the relationship between the two countries.
The prospect of a White House incumbent with an inherent affinity for Israel’s adversaries and unshackled by considerations of reelection is one that must be considered with the utmost seriousness.
How to contend with such a dire eventually will be taken up in a forthcoming column.