While applauding his efforts both at the inauguration and in his Al Arabiyah interview, President Obama’s words often missed the mark. With the best of intentions and in pursuit of an important goal, I think that he was too hard on many and too soft on some in the Muslim world.
Is there really a clash of civilizations, as President Obama’s words indicate? If there is not, then there would be no need to reach out to the entire Muslim world as he did in his inaugural address. If there is no civilizational clash, then he should have addressed no specific religious group, but those people who either support, or are opposed to, America and the values which animate our nation.
And if there is a genuine clash between two civilizations, what is the source of the clash? Is it intrinsic to Islam? And if it is not, and it is not, then why approach it that way? Could it be that the president was playing to those who see America’s policies as a war against Muslims? And if he was, is that approach likely to bear fruit? I think not.
We ought not to favor any conceptual model which pits two distinct civilizations against each other. Not because it isn’t nice, but because it artificially simplifies the challenges we face, and incorrectly presumes a monolithic Muslim world which is against “us”. But who is “us”? Does it mean Americans? If so, where do six million American Muslims fit into this equation? And that’s just for starters.
There is no single Muslim world, and any intimation that there is, will either work against addressing the serious threats we face from some Muslims, or cause us to miss the genuine opportunities that will be found by working more constructively with many more.
Where President Obama got it right was in using the word “mutual” to define the new way forward which he seeks.
Right or wrong in terms of specific policies, unilateralism is doomed as a guiding principle in a globalized world. Without backing down from those principles we hold most dearly, principles including openness, inclusivity, and religious tolerance, we must not simply rest in the rightness of that which we believe.
We must reach out and meet people, even those with whom we may disagree, where they are. We must not wait for them to be where we want them to be. On the other hand, we must not shy away from taking on nations who threaten the world’s ability to sustain those values we hold most dearly either.
We have to be willing to confront the real challenges posed by the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who according to recent research, report genuine hostility to America and our approach to personal freedom. Ultimately, it is our willingness to be extremely tough on those who pose a genuine threat to us and to our way of life that creates the foundation upon which to build better relationships with those who differ from us but are not hostile to us.
Frankly, I would have preferred no overt outreach to any specific community. I would have preferred the President reach out to all communities, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity, who are ready to work with our country on the basis of shared values and commitments.
We will not always agree, but anyone who comes to the table with honesty and a willingness to work in light of those values, even if we disagree about certain specific policies, should be welcomed.