Obama's Call to the Faithful

President Obama's superlative speech at Cairo University will be much analyzed. It was, as expected, an address that was rational, intelligent, eloquent, and fair. In stark contrast to George Bush's catch phrase, "clash of civilizations," Obama made every effort to weave common threads between the West and the Islamic world. He won his first applause with the phrase "holy Koran," and in that vein more applause followed whenever he praised Islam and the glories of its past.

Overall, it was a cobweb-clearing speech. The content wasn't exceptional. Before Muslims assumed the role of bogeyman after 9/11, any tolerant educated person realized that Islamic civilization has a great heritage. Nor is it news that the Muslim world is far more complex than the picture painted by a tiny minority of fanatical extremists. Yet to hear an American president reiterate these things had a powerful emotional effect.

The heart of the speech, once we get past its effort at reconciliation, was Obama's candid talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the social obstructions in Arab society. It was bracing to hear him say that "Israel isn't going away," just as it was moving to hear the words, "peace be upon them" when he referred to Muhammad and Abraham. In one stroke Obama set America's policy toward the Arab world back on a sensible, moral, even idealistic path.

Yet there is a glaring problem that the speech didn't confront directly, which is the inability of "good" Muslims to stand up for change. "Good" is equated with devout, and that's a huge obstacle to reform. The Muslim world has not liberated its core values from the dogmas of religion. In the name of devotion to God, women are denied even basic rights; terrorists march under the banner of faith; mullahs control credulous masses of believers; education for the average citizen is totally centered on the Koran. All of these are backward trends. They run counter to the modern world. In fact, the overwhelming dominance of dictators and royal families in the Arab states doesn't begin to be consistent with democratic values that are two hundred years old in the West. Human rights are more or less non-existent. This is an appalling state of affairs, and no amount of tolerance from America's side alters that fact.

Therefore, as civilized as it was for President Obama to extend a hand to the faithful, Muslims cannot have it both ways. They can't demand respect while using religion as a reactionary force. In every Muslim country without exception, core social values have medieval roots. Atop the swelling masses of illiterate people, a tiny oligarch sits. This oligarchy is rich, secular, and westernized. It pays lip service to the mullahs and fears their power. But the oligarchy rarely lifts a finger to share its wealth and influence, to extend opportunities to average citizens, or to challenge the reactionary social forces that the jihadists represent. Their sole aim is to stay on top and suppress anyone who opposes what the elite wants.

Obama addressed multiple issues and threw light upon all of them. He didn't shy away from hot-button topics like women's equality, to the point that he chided Muslims for telling women how to dress in public. In all respects he told his audience what the modern world, and particularly the West, honestly thinks of them. Will they listen? The mullahs won't. The extremists won't. The illiterate will get only a vague sense that America isn't as hateful and fearsome as the demagogues have told them. But until the small sliver of privileged Muslims quit playing their hypocritical games, problems will only get worse. These are people who lunch in London restaurant and shop in Paris boutiques as often as they attend the mosque. Obama has delivered a wake-up call to them. If they don't change, then the religious backwardness of the Arab world will keep on blindly supporting its opposition to Israel, modernity, democracy, and a better future for ordinary people.

Published in the Washington Post

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