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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's speech to the Muslim world

The world stood at attention today as President Obama gave a historic speech to the Muslim world. In mainstream U.S. media, expectations of the speech ran from highly pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. For a sizable minority in the U.S., the very idea of the speech in a place such as Cairo Egypt represented either a cow-towing to terrorism--or worse, a secret plot to turn the U.S. into a Muslim nation by a president who's secretly a Muslim himself.

Adulation and frenzy aside, since the speech was addressed to Muslims, what matters at this juncture isn't so much how most Americans will view Obama's historic action, but how the vast majority of Muslims will view it. With this in mind, I thought I'd offer some perspective as someone who has lived and worked in the Muslim world and has spent considerable time analyzing world events in light of a Christian missionary perspective.

First, the praise. President Obama didn't waste time acknowledging the achievements Islamic civilization has made to world history. By praising Islamic contributions to fields such as science, philosophy, and architecture; the president touched on an issue felt deeply by most Muslims worldwide--the knowledge of a lost golden age. Although knowing this might not mean much to us, the fact that the president acknowledged some positive aspects of Islamic history probably caused a few teary eyes from some proud Muslims.

The president went on to acknowledge the tension fed by Western colonialism that "denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims" and, even more recently, how during the Cold War many Muslim nations were "often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations." The historical truth of this statement is undeniable, but thankfully, Obama didn't stop there. He also directly challenged jihadist propaganda with the words: "Just as Muslims to not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interesed empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress the world has ever known."

The president also touched on the religious freedom issue, promised additional development aid for Pakistan and Afghanistan, recognized Iraqi sovereignty by honoring their wishes to withdraw troops by 2012, affirmed his support for Israel while recognizing Palestinian grievances, made it clear that democracy should not be imposed on other nations by force, reaffirmed his commitment to a nuclear free world ( a position that John McCain recently signed onto I might add), and made it clear that the U.S. is not seeking a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. All of these are very important steps for eroding the base of support for Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.

Now, the criticism. Obama in my opinion went too far in emphasizing common values between America and Islam. In Obama's words, "America and Islam are not exclusive, instead, they overlap and share common principles." I beg to differ. America was founded on the Christian/enlightenment principle of separation of church and state. In Islam, the idea of a separation between church and state--or more accurately mosque and state--is an anathema. These ideas are worlds apart and it takes a whole lot of cherry picking of Koranic verses by liberal and moderate Muslims to try to reconcile the two.

I also felt that the manner in which the president addressed the religious freedom issue was weak. Although the president did say, "freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion" he didn't touch on the reciprocity issue, which is the fact that Muslims enjoy--and often demand-- freedom in the West to propagate their faith but deny the same freedom to minority religions in their own countries. While the president could have made a clear moral appeal on this issue, all the world got was, "Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's." Lame.

The president's address of women's rights wasn't much better. While he spoke to the issue of allowing women the freedom to wear the head scarf (translation: we're not France!), this is an issue affecting Muslim women in the West. It has little to do with the lives of millions of Muslim women living in Muslim countries. The president could have taken this time to condemn the stoning of adulteresses, absurd rape laws, the kidnapping of young Christian girls to marry older men, and a host of other rampant abuse that many Muslim women suffer by their male counterparts.

Will the president's speech make a positive difference in U.S./Muslim relations? Yes it will, but the impact will be minimal. It's very important to understand that there was very little in Obama's speech that hasn't already been said by previous administrations--including the Bush administration. Even on the issue of calling on Israel to freeze settlement expansion, the president said nothing new. As a matter of fact, every president from Carter until now has said the same thing, and absolutely nothing has changed because Israel refuses to comply to America's wishes and America continues to bankroll the Israeli government. Muslims know that President Obama is very unlikely to change the status quo in this arrangement--especially with Netanyahu in power.

Another reason why the president's words will ring hallow in many Muslim ears is because the speech seemed to be directed at contradicting jihadist propaganda while speaking very little to the issue that the vast majority of Muslims care about the most--more political and economic freedoms. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Muslims want more democracy, not less. Many Muslims, however, see the U.S. as an obstacle to democracy because we are the ones supporting many of the oppressive dictators ruling over them.

Will the speech spur a change of heart in Al Qaeda members and like minded groups? Of course not! The only way to deal with these people is to pursue an aggressive agenda, along with our allies, to disband their networks, freeze their assets, arrest the murderers, and bring them to justice. The speech will however, contribute to eroding the base of support for radical Islam if it's followed by sound policy. Christians should pray that God gives our nation's leaders wisdom on exactly what those policies should be. Because for Muslims worldwide, actions speak louder than words.


toby said...

great article.

Aaron D. Taylor said...


Adam said...

Interesting thoughts Aaron. I have a point to make though... In your criticism, you basically state that the President was week on certain issues, even calling one statement of his "Lame". I think we need to consider the Presidents purpose of the speech. I don't think his purpose was to strongly take on such important issues that you spoke of at this time. I'm sure he will do that in the future and probably not mainly by public speeches. For now, I think this was a great start and served his purpose exactly as he meant it. Even though you say many past Presidents have addressed some of the same things, it's Obama's overwhelming sincerity and demonstrated knowledge and understanding of Islam that is the difference; it's basically his ‘believable’ tone. I think Obama is trying his best to make peace in this world and that his speech was on par for that specific goal. I don’t think anyone is assuming that this one speech will change everything in this moment in time but I do think it left many feeling more hopeful for the future. I applaud the President in his efforts to make peace and think that his speech definitely chipped away at least some ill feelings on all sides. I agree with you on your assessment of how we must continue to deal with extremism. The intent of the speech was surely not to try and make terrorist or extremists change their minds about us infidels. Our task of combating terrorism and the like will be much easier, however, with the honest support of the Muslim states in which these extremist operate. Currently, most Muslim states do not trust our government and therefore the support we get is at best ‘wishy-washy’. Being in the warzone myself and talking to many who’s there now, we have no idea who to trust because they don’t trust us and especially not our government. Any path that has to possibility to lead to more trust between Muslims and America is a good one and I think Obama’s speech was a start down that path. It’s small, but we have to start somewhere and I think that was the Presidents intent.

Doug said...

The truth is, whether or not anyone wants to believe it - Obama is a Muslim at heart. I knew this from the beginning. Just because someone says they are Christian, and spouts Christian verses, does not make them a Christian. True Christianity comes from the heart. The Bible speaks of being deceived by good works and fair speech. Many times, an underlying theme can be felt from Obama when I see him. I can see where his overlying comments read - world peace.
He is busy trying to reconcile Muslim nations with America, while in our own country, people are persecuted for speaking on behalf of Christianity. Children cannot wear Christian t-shirts, bring Bibles to school, or even share about anything Christian in classes, in some schools. Yet, he is adamantly working to make peace with Islam. That is a huge tip-off to his motives. You sometimes have to look past the words spoken and see what people actually do. And even then, without the Holy Spirit's guidance, the vision can still be dim - we read that the Beast will be able to deceive even the very elect, if not for the grace of God. Satan is very crafty.
I am not asserting by any means that Obama is the Beast - I truly don't believe that he is, as for one, the Jews will want a Jewish leader as their leader - and Obama does not fit the bill. I am not aiming to go that direction, so I will stop with that right here.
But when we try to make peace with one religion through fair words, while the religion we claim to be a part of suffers in our own country - that shows that there are alterior motives.
What we must do is pray. This country got what it asked for. Israel asked for a king, and it was an evil thing in the eyes of the Lord. Yet, they were simple, stubborn and rebellious. Let us be like Daniel, and pray, no matter what. Only God can change the course of what is going to happen. People think they can do something, but if God is not in it, you might as well forget it - your pride will become your shining light, and you will be on a crusade for what looks good, not knowing that you are actually fighting against God's will. Let us pray and then see what God will speak.

Adam said...


Could you quantify your statement that Obama is a Muslim at heart? Other than your gut feeling, what do you have to go on? I've researched it intently and haven't found anything to back up such a claim. Honestly, I think that many Christians look at his outward appearance and his name and don't look any farther. Also, aren't we all called to make peace brother? Too many Christians feel the need to take a non-peace approach when dealing with spreading the Gospel and Islam. I'm not convinced this is our Biblical guidance.

Aaron D. Taylor said...


I appreciate your thoughts on Obama's speech. I think you made some good points. I agree with you that the speech was a good start. I'm particularly sensitive to religious freedom issues because of what I know takes place in the Muslim world. It's an issue that gets almost no coverage in the mainstream media, so I would have liked to have heard some stronger language in Obama's speech. I do realize, however, that had he adopted the stronger language I would have liked, it may have undermined his purpose for the speech, which was to build bridges.

Maria said...

As I see it from the very "outside" (germany)..and most of my friends from very different political "wings", different religious (or non-)beliefs: the most of us have the idea that this american president is someone you can and will trust.(Even if you not agree with his foreign policy) That's something what for decades didn't happen.

Adam said...


I know that you have seen more than most, and surely more than me, concerning Muslim countries and the lack of religous freedoms. The point you made on the reciprocity issue is sticking with me... this might sound crazy but I don't know that I've really thought about this so much. It really is baffeling that Muslim states demand to practice their religon in western countries but deny ours in so many Muslim countries. It does seem like something we need to address much stronger politically and seems to me like a battle we could make headway on somehow??

Terry said...

An excellent review and right on, I think!