Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pyramidland Tour

 President Barack Obama faces great challenges when he speaks to the Muslim world tomorrow from Cairo. He must counter some of the myths and outright falsehoods about the United States that are commonly believed in many parts of the Muslim world, and he needs to present his audience with some inconvenient truths. But he also has an opportunity, based in no small part on his own remarkable career, to make the case that the political principles and values that are sometimes mistakenly labeled as "Western" are appropriate for the Muslim world.

The challenge of addressing the entire Muslim world in a single speech can be appreciated if one imagines what the reaction would be if some other world leader attempted to speak to the "Christian world," with all of its diversity. For example, although Islam is the state religion in most countries with Muslim majorities, there are a number -- including Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world -- where it is not. Moreover, some countries have large non-Muslim minorities. And the second largest Muslim population in the world lives as a minority in India. There is an enormous variety of views among Muslims around the world on everything from religion to politics to family values.

Although there are many expectations for this speech, one that Mr. Obama hopefully will disappoint is the expectation that he will walk away from what President George W. Bush called "the freedom agenda." That would be a great mistake for the U.S. and for the Muslim world.

Some observers have viewed the choice of Egypt as the venue for this important speech as a deliberate distancing from that idea. Egypt is an important country and the largest in the Arab world. But it is not the largest country in the Muslim world, or the most tolerant, or the freest, or the most democratic, or the most developed, or the most prosperous. The president should make clear that his decision to speak in Cairo does not mean he is indifferent to how the Egyptian government treats its own people, despite the importance of Egypt in the Arab-Israeli peace process and as an ally in confronting Iran.

The president said correctly in an NPR interview on Monday that "part of being a good friend is being honest," and that we need to be honest with Israel about "the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests." The president also needs to be honest with the Muslim world. That means addressing the causes of the poverty and tyranny which are so pervasive that they create a widespread belief the U.S. is at best indifferent -- and at worst actively complicit -- in maintaining those conditions in order to deny Muslims their rightful place in the world.

Mr. Obama's own remarkable career is living testimony to the strengths of America's open society and free institutions. Most Muslims recognize his achievement in becoming the leader of a country that, despite our problems, is still admired and envied for its prosperity and freedom. At the same time, they recognize that no one of comparable background could become the leader of any of their own countries. That empowers Mr. Obama to argue persuasively that the institutions and practices that have enabled the U.S. to change so much over the course of two centuries can provide the key for their progress as well.

Genuine democracy is a matter of making government accountable and transparent, not only through elections but through many other means as well, including a free press. It means protecting the rights of all citizens to develop their full potential, both for their own prosperity and for the society as a whole, by protecting equal rights under the law. That includes the right of private property, which is recognized clearly in Islam. In speaking to the Muslim world, it is particularly important for the president to emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of women and those of minorities -- subjects on which he can be particularly eloquent and persuasive.

The denial of equal rights to women is unjust. It hurts society as a whole when half the population is prevented from achieving its full potential. The countries in the Muslim world that have developed most successfully are those -- such as Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia -- where women have been able to play a substantial role. Those same countries have also benefited enormously from giving scope to Christian and Jewish minorities to prosper, although the record is imperfect. Turkey's Jewish minority found refuge there 500 years ago from the Spanish Inquisition. In those days, when Islamic civilization was the most advanced in the world, it was also one of the most tolerant.

Unfortunately, today's trend is in the wrong direction in much of the Muslim world. Church burnings and other intolerant acts are increasing. As a member of a minority himself, Mr. Obama is strongly positioned to speak out against that trend.

More generally, the president could counter the belief that the U.S. is indifferent to the fate of the world's Muslims or, worse, that we demonize Islam. He could remind his listeners of the many occasions in the past 20 years when the U.S. put its men and women in harm's way -- in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq -- to assist people suffering from tyranny or famine who happened to be Muslims.

He could tell them of the deep respect that Americans have for religious belief in general and for Islam as one of the world's great religions. He could reiterate our understanding that the actions of extremists do not represent the majority of Muslims, as his predecessors emphasized repeatedly.

Hopefully, however, the president will not repeat what he said to Al-Arabiyah television in January about going back to "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago." Throughout the Muslim world that was interpreted as a return to a time when, as President Bush said, the U.S. preferred stability to freedom in the Middle East and ended up with neither.

The president should make clear that the U.S. does not believe that democracy can be imposed by force. Nor should he suggest that stability is unimportant. Free institutions cannot be expected to develop overnight, and certainly not in Egypt. But particularly in Egypt it is appropriate to emphasize that true stability requires giving that country's persecuted liberal democrats the space to begin growing free institutions, rather than leaving the field entirely to extremists who organize effectively in secret.

One of those persecuted Egyptian liberals, Ayman Nour, recently asked whether Mr. Obama will "confirm his commitment to democracy, or will he appease dictators and aggressors?" One single speech cannot definitively answer that question but hopefully, tomorrow in Cairo, Ayman Nour will be pleased with Barack Obama's words.