Obama’s Grand Slam in Cairo also Illustrates the Lack of Secular Politics in the Middle East

He certainly is talented! I have been in Korea since August 2008, so I have not seen many Obama speeches. I am just floored by the difference with W. No wonder the press is swooning. Unlike the faux-authority projected by Cheney’s crossed hands and low voice (he was just too wrong too many times), Obama has the magic in that imperious, super well-educated look when he lifts his chin, creases his brow, and narrows his eyes. He must have been a great lawyer to see in court; he reminds me of my best grad school teachers.

1. I am intellectually pleased at how well my predictions of the speech fared. I got most everything right, both in the topics he selected and how he treated them. He did engage in lots of praise of Islam that will make Bushies, neo-cons, and evangelicals squirm. As I suspected he threw in the PBUH and references to Islamic scientific achievements. This laid the groundwork for the criticisms, so it was necessary, and thankfully there were no real eye-rolling sycophancies. But I do think calling the Koran ‘holy’ all the time did not project the political secularism needed to encourage religious pluralism in the ME, and the line about ‘battling negative stereotypes of Islam’ was a lame multicultural sop to the Muslim identity politics that lead to Durban II and the bogus, free speech-squelching notion of ‘islamophobia.’ I expect the Fox News-set will harp on that one. On the up side, Obama added a few extra themes: women’s rights, democracy, and development.

2. Just about all his comments were right.

As I argued, but hardly expected in the speech, Obama referenced Japan and Korea as examples of modernization without cultural loss.

He identified the war of necessity in South Asia and admitted that Iraq was a war of choice, while also noting that Iraqis are better of without Saddam. He didn’t apologize for Iraq, which would have set off a national-conservative backlash at home, but he seemed to imply it was an error. Very smooth.

He noted the concerns over women’s rights and modernization, but rightfully blew threw that reactionary posture pretty fast to say what needed to be said: that the ME is falling behind the rest of the world and that this feeds both poverty and radicalism.

He basically dumped ME peace back in their hands by saying we can’t do it for them. He said lots of right things about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He attacked Muslim anti-semitism and Holocaust denial and openly declared the illegitimacy of the Israeli West Bank settlement to an Arab audience. Nice! And he backed that with a subtle and correct shot that too many Arab regimes don’t really care to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Also correct.

He even had the courage to touch on religious tolerance in the Muslim ME, which I think is a critical breakpoint with the West. The defense of the Copts was an important gesture, particularly to western Christians who think the Islam demands wide latitude for its practitioners in the West while denying it in the ME (basically accurate).

He also went to bat for the freedom agenda – important because it signals a continuity of US commitment to democracy across quite different administrations. Unfortunately he passed on singling out his host Mubarak, exactly the sort of US-supported ME despot that fires al Qaeda.

Finally, did you catch the subtle end of Bush-era grand strategy: “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”? That is pretty much the end of regime change and preemption.

3. I can’t say he really missed much. But for the PC bit about stereotypes and the missed swipe at Mubarak, this was pretty much a grand slam.

4. I was pleased with the audience reaction. At no point did it get nationalist, islamist or otherwise jingoistic. They applauded not only at the complements, but also the criticisms. Very good.

5. But there is an important and deep political theory insight to be gleaned from the language of the talk. It was not intentional but should be revelatory to secular westerners unaccustomed to ME political discourse. Obama’s constant reference to Islam and his use of religious quotations and invocation of Islamic and religious values was a deep indication of the cultural cleft between the West and Islam, albeit more between secular Europe and the religious ME. And I suspect that an upper class secular Democrat like O found it somewhat uncomfortable to be constantly referring to ‘faith.’ To this day, I admire Howard Dean’s response to G Stephanopoulos’ mandatory and obnoxious question about the role of religion in his politics. Dean simply said there was no role.

Yet Obama can’t talk that way in the ME for two reasons. First, Islamism as a social movement has exploded in the ME since 1967. The ME is alive with religion in the way of Massachusetts Bay Colony or the Amish. Islam is in the middle of a ‘great awakening’ period, and the language of religion is spilling into all areas. Hence the upsurge of Muslim identity politics and discovery of something called ‘islamophobia,’ which here is defined so broadly as to include just about any criticism. So Islam must be genuflected to and wrapped into any serious socio-political discussion in the ME. For contrast, look at Southeast Asia where is Islam is more secular.

Second, Islam has become the shield for opposition in the ME, just like Orthodoxy was in the USSR. Islam has become the channel for political resistance to atrocious government of the ME, and so it has become increasingly politicized. Politicized religion is almost always apocalyptic and absolutist, and the contemporary ME is no different. New ideas, policy proposals, criticism must invariably cite koranic verse and treat it as font of authority – as O did last yesterday. (For parallels, think about how the US right uses the writings of the Founders and Framers as touchstones for just about everything, or the way the Soviets and Chinese used to comb through Marx for quotations to support whatever new policy they wanted to pursue.)

This more than anything else betrays the bankruptcy of politics in the ME. It badly lacks a public-spirited, nondenominational language of citizenship. It is trapped in the religious and chronological parochialism of a 1400 year old revelation. This both cripples and exacerbates politics. Cripples, because the Koran (and the hadith) hardly fit the needs of social phenomena like the discovery of the New World, industrialization, space travel, or globalization. (Think of the ridiculous anti-modern intransigence of the Haredim.) And it exacerbates politics by injecting religion at every turn and so constantly raises political difference to the level of religious confrontation. Part of this is inevitably parochialism. If the Koran is the basis of wisdom and the good life, then how to deal with non-Muslims? As an example of all these problems cumulated, look at Saudi Arabia. It has no constitution, because it claims the Koran is that, and hence has all sorts of ‘religious’ problems over what should be simple technical issues questions like women drivers or proper license plates. By contrast political theory in the West has long strived to build a public-spirited universalist language (Habermas and Rawls spring to mind). This helps western democracies build citizenship across religious cleavages and also ties them internationally to each other better than any other ‘family of nations.’

3 thoughts on “Obama’s Grand Slam in Cairo also Illustrates the Lack of Secular Politics in the Middle East

  1. Pingback: What Presidents Lee (SK) & Obama Need to Say to Each Other Tomorrow « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. Pingback: Obama’s Libya Speech was Good « Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Korean National Identity (1): Comparisons to Israel, France, and the US « Asian Security Blog

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