A nearly hourlong address in Cairo just two weeks ago transfixed a global audience that finally had a chance to hear a new American President speak his piece and listen for the words that could begin to assuage deep wounds of generational angst. The President peppered his speech with Koranic verses and experiences of his own with Muslims that ranged from Indonesia to Kenya to America's own Muslim community, and showed a familiarity and empathy rarely evinced by a POTUS.
Reflecting on the speech and the breathless hype that preceded it, an unshakeable disquiet arises beginning with the playbill itself. Obama addresses the "Muslim world" the White House announced; a meditation on the "relationship between the West and Islam." New ground would be broken and the path to reconciliation laid out.
Indeed the President did address his perceptions of the sense of injustice, betrayal, alleged victimization and manipulation endured by many who happen to be Muslim in parts of the world. He did also call out the Muslim extremists that have exploited these perceptions in the most heinous terror attacks that our world has recently witnessed.
But what, exactly, is the "Muslim world"? Is there truly a monolithic reality of mutual aspirations, ideology and narrative of victimhood? Would a Muslim in Indonesia, where the President spent much of his youth, share the same sense of place and community with a Muslim in America?
As M.J. Akbar, one of India's foremost columnists asked in the aftermath of the speech:
"As an Indian Muslim I belong to the second largest Muslim community in the world. I also live, proudly, as an equal, in India, a nation that contains the largest Hindu community in the world. Do you think I have the same political views as my fellow Muslims in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal?"
In his address to a Muslim world, President Obama decried violent extremism--utterly not related to the peaceful Muslims that comprise nearly four million in the United States; he spoke of the Israel-Palestinian conflict--not really central to the sufferings of Muslims killed yesterday by other Muslims in another deadly bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan; he addressed the lack of democracy and religious freedom in the Muslim world--Muslims in Indonesia, Bangladesh and India who enjoy the benefits of both would look around and wonder in which Muslim world they belonged!
Yes, global Muslims answer the call for prayer and aspire for a pilgrimage to Mecca, just as Hindus dream of a dip in the Ganges river or Jews and Christians a journey to the Holy Land. There is a fellowship among believers that cannot be denied--a community that spans continents.
It would seem, though, that the idea of a transnational Muslim world would have ended with the Ottoman Caliphate, doomed when Ataturk appropriated political authority in 1924. There is no pope speaking for all Muslims today, and most certainly, the Ayatollahs of Iran do not give voice or supplant the authority of a Sunni preacher in Iraq.
Indeed, the concept of a global Ummah or a Dar al-Islam--a world under Islam--is alive today only in the tenets and gospel of Islamism. From India's state of Jammu and Kashmir to a few mosques in London, and a no-man's land only nominally within the borders of either Afghanistan or Pakistan, bin Laden and his ilk have appealed to like-minded demons in a jihad to re-establish a Muslim world--a caliphate that could supplant in glory any that came before. The promise of an Islamic world, the call for a world of Muslims, is heard only from the pulpits of the most extreme and fill the hearts of too many with unshakeable dread.
And so we repeatedly heard from a United States President, plaintively calling out that America is not at "war with Islam", and earnestly calling on the Muslim world to engage America in a reciprocal relationship built on trust and goodwill. But no American today claims, and no neutral observer could possibly indict this country for having launched such a war. As Akbar further wrote, "America would have to be a theocracy, with Inquisition as its preferred domestic policy, and conversion as the principal instrument of foreign affairs, to declare war on Islam."
But there was President Obama breathing life into a concept of a headless Muslim world--one with no leader, no capital and no constitution. A world so very diverse that its citizens do not share language, culture, history, ethos or even, for that matter, religious beliefs--witness the clashes between Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis and others. And a concept only given life by the greatest enemies that the United States and much of the world has ever known.
One could argue further as to the exclusions in a speech if it were to truly address a Muslim world. President Obama became the greatest of interfaith proponents as he celebrated the commonalities of Abrahamic faiths and quoted from the Koran, Bible and Talmud. That Hindus in India, who have a tumultuous history with extremist Islam in India, must be a part of a broader dialogue, or that Buddhist heritage in Afghanistan was the most spectacular of cultural victims to the Taliban escaped mention to the disappointment of many. A dialogue to remedy historical prejudice, real and imagined, must be inclusive in the end.
President Obama addressed critical issues that affect a part of the world that spans the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan that day in Cairo. Those concerns are real and the United States has an integral role to play. President Obama spoke to a part of the world where Muslims live in majority, but his audience could not be the world of Muslims who are as diverse as the world which all people and faiths inhabit. To use the appellation of a "Muslim world" was facile and lacking in the intellectual rigor citizens should expect.