President Obama’s speech was an attempt to create deeper understanding between America and Muslims throughout the world, but the feel-good impact of the speech is unlikely to last long or change opinions about America among those who object to U.S. policies in the Middle East and South Asia.
His pledge to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam was welcomed by Muslim observers. He also emphasized the need for more tolerance and the safeguarding of diversity in Muslim-majority countries, a point that needs to be made more often and more loudly. He noted the importance of protecting religious freedom for minorities and suggested Muslims need to be mindful of one another’s differences.
He could have been more explicit about non-violent Islamist extremism and the dangers it poses to the ideals of individual freedom and religious liberty. He addressed it indirectly by expressing the U.S. commitment to democratic values but he should have been more direct in order to provide moral support for Muslims around the world who are themselves fighting against such ideologies.
By avoiding using the word “Islamist,” he is downplaying the ideological underpinnings for terrorism. Obama is right that we should not equate terrorism with the religion of Islam, but we also need to be ready to engage in the battle of ideas and be clear when political Islam contradicts the ideals of individual freedom and religious liberty.
He was right to emphasize the importance of women’s rights. This is a key issue for promoting liberty in Muslim-majority countries.
It was also important that he talked about the founding principles of America. This should happen more often in our public diplomacy. It is much more productive than trying to promote popular American culture as an instrument of public diplomacy, which is a losing proposition.
He talked about the success of Muslims in America, noting that people from all races, creeds, and religions can be successful in America. But he should have gone further to make the point that this is possible because of the rule of law and democratic checks on authority.
Oversimplification of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and other Middle East Challenges
Obama shared his personal experience living in a Muslim country and sought to connect the civil rights movement in the U.S. with the Palestinians’ struggle for an independent state. This was a mistake, because the American civil rights movement did not have the goal of destroying the U.S., while many Palestinians, including those in Hamas and other Islamist extremist movements, remain implacably committed to destroying Israel. Moreover, he failed to make the point that Muslims living in Israel have more civil rights and freedoms than Muslims living under Hamas repression.
Obama also grossly understated the threat posed by Hamas to Israel and to Palestinians themselves. He vaguely talked about Hamas as if it is just another political party, without acknowledging its revolutionary Islamist ideology which rejects not only peace negotiations with Israel but Israel’s very existence. And he accepted the Arab viewpoint in talking about “occupation” and “humiliation” without mentioning the Arab attacks on Israel that triggered repeated wars and the Palestinian terrorism that has sabotaged past peace efforts. The Arabs could have created a Palestinian state after 1948 but did not. Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza.
There is also a distinct danger that by raising Muslim expectations of a rapid movement to a peace settlement that downplays Israel’s security requirements and the threat of continued terrorism, the President will be creating the conditions for a backlash when these hopes are disappointed.
In Israel, the speech is likely to be perceived as an attempt to appease Muslims at Israel’s expense. There will be growing concern that the Obama administration is giving short shrift to Israel’s security needs and underplaying the threat of terrorism.
Obama also attacked the decision to go to war in Iraq, calling it “a war of choice,” without mentioning that Saddam Hussein failed to respond to several years of diplomacy and instead chose to flout several Security Council resolutions.
He did not address the scale of the Iranian threat or Iran’s support for terrorism, or even UN sanctions against Iran.
Al-Qaeda Attempt to Upstage Speech
Al-Qaeda failed in its attempt to upstage the Obama speech. Releasing two successive tapes this week, one on Tuesday by al-Zawahiri and one on Wednesday purportedly recorded by Usama bin Laden, al-Qaeda sought to portray Obama as an enemy of the Muslim world who was sowing hatred among the Muslim community, particularly with regard to U.S. policies toward Pakistan.
The videos demonstrate that al-Qaeda is worried about Obama’s ability to appeal to the Muslim community and is desperately searching for ways to blunt his ability to do so. Al-Qaeda is focusing its efforts on Pakistan, where U.S. policies are often blamed for the rash of suicide bombings in the country over the last two years.
Al-Qaeda may have erred by mentioning the situation in the Swat Valley, however, since the Pakistani public has recently galvanized behind the Pakistan military operations to oust the Taliban from the region. Pakistanis are increasingly viewing the Taliban as malevolent actors seeking to undermine the Pakistani state and its democratic institutions.
Heritage Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs James Phillips co-authored this post.