Thursday, 4 June 2009

Obama's faith foundation

The worst thing that can be said about Barack Obama's "speech to the Muslim world" - delivered in Cairo to an audience that responded almost as rapturously as certain BBC corrsepondents - was that for long stretches of it he appeared to be channelling Tony Blair. And, in my book, that's pretty damning. There was the same historical ignorance, the same empty, windy rhetoric, the same cultural cringe, the same unwillingness to spell out hard facts, the same desire to flatter the audience, the same liberal platitudes, the same lack of realistic solutions. Large sections were crammed almost to a parodic decree with Blair-style faithspeak. Indeed, the agenda of Tony's absurd faith foundation would now seem to have become official American policy.

Take this passage. Banish, if you will, all thoughts of the divine Barack from your mind. Imagine that these words are being spoken by Tony Blair:

Indeed, faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah's Interfaith dialogue and Turkey's leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into Interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action – whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster.

It's the reference to malaria - TB's big project (at least until he manages to secure the Brussels job) - that really gives the game away, although Blair has been just as effusive about the Saudi king's interfaith initiative in the past, and just as unwilling to mention Saudi Arabia's less than perfect record when it comes to democracy, human rights or religious tolerance. Blair has never explained what sending mosquito nets to Africa - laudable though that is - has to do with improving Muslim-Christian relations. But he'll be pleased to have Barack on board.

While Obama had some good things to say about Holocaust denial and antisemitism - "baseless, ignorant, and hateful" - and some useful passages about the Middle East peace process, his desire to flatter his audience led him to some highly questionable, even dangerous, assertions.

First, historical distortion and/or ignorance. The way this works is to contrast the inherent tolerance and pluralism of Islam with the oppression and exploitation that characterised all Western relationships with the Muslim world - at least, until recently, when the entirely altruistic foreign policy goals of America and her allies have been systematically misunderstood as more of the same. At the same time, Islam is held to have been responsible for virtually all Western scientific and philosophical achievements.

It was Islam – at places like Al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

That passage, especially the parts about the magnetic compass and printing, is likely to annoy some people in China. The question of printing is particularly ironic, since moveable type was developed in China and Korea and (independently, it appears) in Europe in the fifteenth century, whereas in Muslim countries printing was not only a late arrival, it was actively excluded by the Ottoman government on the grounds that the widespread availability of books would undermine the primacy of the Koran. Algebra was an Arab achievement- but while Arab medicine in the Middle Ages and long afterwards was in advance of Europe, that was mainly because European medical practice was positively dangerous, whereas Islamic medicine at least had the efficacy of a placebo. There were real achievements in terms of the understanding of the human body in medieval Spain, and at least one important medical advance - smallpox inoculation - was imported into Europe from Ottoman Turkey in the 18th century. But "understanding of how disease spreads" had to wait for the nineteenth century and the work of European scientists such as Louis Pasteur, and it took until the twentieth for actual treatments to be developed. As far as I'm aware, Muslim doctors played no role in these developments, although in recent decades there has been high-quality research carried out in Islamic countries. Such research is, of course, entirely based on Western models.

Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I'm not sure what he means by "cherished music", but it would be churlish to deny that Islam has given the world some truly great domes. Although of course it was the Romans who pioneered that form of architecture.

Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.

Here's where the trouble starts. Read literally the sentence is anachronistic - the Inquisition was only brought in after the last Muslim rulers had been kicked out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. It's a fair point that in Islamic Spain Christians and Jews were (most of the time) allowed to practise their religion in peace - provided they paid the Jizra tax and did not attempt to display their religion in public. Muslims had most of the privileges and all of the power. Better than the Inquisition's reign of terror, certainly, but it was a very limited sort of tolerance by modern standards. Of course, comforting myth sound better than historical complexity. What rankles is not so much the warm language but the unnecessary factual errors.

But then when it comes to flattering Islam, Obama's soft soap rivals that of Blair himself. There were quotes from the "Holy Koran" aplenty, references to "the children of Abraham", much talk of "mutual respect", even the assertion that it was "part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear". I don't remember hearing that in the Oath of Office. His language, in parts, was quite startling. For example, he spoke of the Middle East as "the region where it [Islam] was first revealed". Why "revealed" rather than "born" or "established"? "Revealed" implies truth; it also implies divine intervention. This is certainly how it will be interpreted. And so careful a user of language as President Obama will not have been unaware of these connotations.

Obama later turned to the thorny issues of religious pluralism and women's rights. Here, the trick is to minimise the problem by downplaying the abuses on one side and exaggerating the faults on the other. Obama relies on a spurious balancing act by which every terrorist outrage or human rights violation emanating from "the Muslim world" has to be answered by an equivalent Western crime against Islam. At times, the effort to find such balance strains the speech beyond breaking point:

Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

So on the one hand, there is actual persecution - not infrequently attended by violence. There is also - though Obama isn't so rude as to mention it - the use of laws against "blasphemy" to prevent freedom of religious expression or suppress human rights. In one notable case, Afghan student Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh was sentenced to twenty years for the distributing a pamphlet in favour of women's rights. On the other hand, some American Muslims might be find it difficult to exploit tax-breaks for charitable giving. Obama promises to make it easier. Which is fine, of course (as long as the zakat money doesn't find its way to Hizbollah, as has been known to happen). But really, there is no comparison to be made. There is not even the beginning of a comparison. Such moral equivalence does neither side much good - and certainly, does nothing for those Muslims (and Christians) suffering human rights violations in the spurious name of Islam.

Obama's remarks about the role of women were similarly vague and non-confrontational:

Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential.

No objections there. But he also felt the need to say - twice - that there was no problem with the hijab. Or rather there was, but it is purely a matter of Westerners "dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear". He said: "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal", as though there were such a view. If there is, I've yet to hear it. Rather, there are those who believe that a culture that requires a woman (but not a man) to cover her hair is, in a meaningful sense, less committed to the equality of the sexes than one in which men aren't unhealthily obsessed with telling women how to dress. It's certainly my view - though I appreciate it's a minority one in Britain (though not in France).

It is perverse to imply - as Obama does - that the only problem with Islamic dress comes from attempts to suppress it. He fails to address what is the real problem with Islamic women's dress - which is that there are several countries in which it is legally imposed, and many more communities where it is imposed through intimidation or violence. Instead, he boasts that "the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it", as though that is the only freedom that matters. Freedom works both ways; but not in Obamaland, not today at least.

(Obama's mealy-mouthed comments about the status of women have gone down badly with some feminists, I note.)

Another oddly Blairite touch came when he promised to "create a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo". I assume that there are teenagers in Kansas who would like to communicate instantly with teenagers in Cairo. Or vice versa. And they can. Presumably the "new online network" of which he speaks will be some sort of website. But so many opportunities for instant communication already exist, and are already easily accessible to teenagers both in Kansas and in Cairo, that one more is unlikely to change the world.

But the peroration outBlaired Blair at his most Blairish. There was, first of all, the improbable vision of a shiny new world:

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek – a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek.

And all the world shall live as one, as John Lennon put it (though the Liverpudlian philosopher noted that the absence of religion might be a precondition for the emergence of such a utopia). This rhetorical day-dreaming brought back memories of all those speeches to the Labour party conference. So too did Obama's denunciation of the pessimists and those of ill-will:

Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort – that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

I mean, it's the purest tosh, is it not? How can anyone pretend to take it seriously?


Irina from Dublin said...

I had the feeling of the Downing Street Declaration of Major/Reynolds when I read the full speech.

DUP/UUP never had nukes tho'.

The next four years...., I have the feeling the primary (at Israeli politics) purpose of the speech was to chuck Bibi out. (R&R Rahm & Ross)

asquith said...

Whatever Obama may be obliged to say & do for political purposes, such as his self-proclaimed opposition to gay marriage, & this fawning, I still suspect him of being godless at heart. Of course this isn't a view that can be publicly stated in America but it seems to ring true.

Funnily enough, you were the one who first introduced me to this concept- do you still think it is likely?

WeepingCross said...

But all idealism is tosh, isn't it? Yet without the tosh nothing ever moves forward - ironic for those of us who are instinctive conservatives.

BarabbasFreed said...

Rhetoric (a.k.a complete tosh) is a powerful tool in a lot of the muslim countries. I remember hearing an account of one political speech "he took our hearts and held them there for 2 hours. Stirring them and moving them. Then at the end he gave them back except for mine. He still had mine"

Yes its quasi balanced rubbish. Indeed, the forced nature of the balancing points may piss some Muslims off. But the effect could be really quite marked. I've been perusing some Islamic websites and it seems the hardliners are having to fight a rear guard action against a lot of positive responses

John B said...

Ultimately, who cares whether it's true or whether it's bullshit? If people in the Arab world even vaguely believe it, it'll help send Islam down the road of C-of-E-isation that shifts religion from 'dangerous and barbaric' to 'harmless chaps who remind you to get up at 7:40AM rather than listen to their witterings on the wireless'. Which is precisely what anyone with <= half a brain should hope for when it comes to religion.

asquith said...

John B is right. The average inhabitant of the Muslim world won't all turn into a Heresy Corner reader overnight, we have to engage with them as they are & do what is possible to gently nudge them towards secularism, whilst isolating & mercilessly crushing the likes of the Taliban. You only isolate them by ensuring that those who vaguely sympathise with them but don't do anything turn emphatically against them & their approach.

Obama is much more likely than any of his predecessors to inspire a movement towards progressive & away from reactionary attitudes in the Middle East. As Orwell reminds us, we need gestures as well as actions. It seems vapid to you but the people he was primarily addressing don't take this view.

Such is life in the reality-based community that we now reside in.

The Heresiarch said...

@ Father W: I didn't say "all idealism" was tosh. I said this speech was tosh. It wasn't even particularly idealistic, or indeed brave. He told the most reactionary elements in the Muslim world precisely what they wanted to hear - which is that the West was full of moral failings, they were oppressed, and that there was no real issue about the status of women. If the price of getting a fair hearing in the Middle East is reinforcing the smugness of undemocratic regimes (note the fine words for the Saudis and the repressive Egyptian government) and skirting over awkward issues, I can't see this speech achieving anything.

Barabbas Freed & John B: It's not surprising that it got such a good reaction, since it reinforced the prevailing narrative of Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, etc. He agreed with them - even to the extent of blaming US TV and internet for "offensive sexuality and mindless violence". But it will not - cannot - be followed up with the kind of action they'd want to see, it is will soon enough be replaced by dissillusionment. Wait and see. As for the CofE point - well, if you really think being loved by Obama will turn hardliners into tea-drinking comedy vicars, good luck with that.

Asquith: "Obama is much more likely than any of his predecessors to inspire a movement towards progressive & away from reactionary attitudes in the Middle East."

I'd like to hope so. But he had more comforting words for the reactionaries the for the truly progressive elements in this speech. They will easily be able to latch onto the words against Israel and ignore the rather high-flown passages about non-violence.

By the way, how about this bit:

Now let me be clear: issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women's equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

Hillary will have particularly relished that passage, I think.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best blogs in the whole blogosphere but please don't descend into the moronic Muslim bashing found, for example, on Holy Smoke.

There are around 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and it is in everbody's interest that we find a way to rub along together. If that means mouthing a few platitudes fine and I think the core message "we are not at war with you" is pretty essential.

What good do you really think would have been done by Obama standing up nad giving his listeners a review of Islam's faults?

The Heresiarch said...

Anonymous: It is not and never has been my view that Islam is inherently wicked or backward. It is however my view that, at present, the reactionary elements hold the upper hand. The victims of this are, overwhelmingly, ordinary Muslims. The "terrorism" problem in the West is greatly exaggerated - but violence, intimidation and repression, some of it in the name of religion, are a daily reality for many of the 1.5 bn Muslims in the world today. Especially for women.

What worries me about Obama's approach is that it gives comfort to religious reactionaries, by glossing over the real problems with the way Islam is interpreted (not just by violent extremists) and to the repressive governments of countries like Saudi Arabia. Who suffers? Ordinary Muslims suffer. I don't want to "bash" either Muslims or Islam. But I do want to bash abusers of human rights who seek spurious religious justifications for their attitudes. Obama's brand of softly-softly moral relativism does nothing for, say, women put in prison for being raped.

Anonymous said...

First - I am only anonymous because I am too technically incompetent to crack the identity thing!

I agree that there is a very great deal to object to in Islam as practised in many, many places. In fact, I think its pretty hard to defend to anyone with a post enlightenment world view.

Obama's speech is surely one bit of a strategy. Just as Cameron had to "detoxify" the Troy brand Obama has to detoxify the US government brand.

valdemar squelch said...

I never thought he was that good a speechifyer, just vastly more intelligent than Bush, McCain, Palin etc.

But what do you say if you can't speak the truth? Islam turned its back on science centuries ago; Muslim men's crude and thuggish attitudes to women are a major cause of economic failure; its hostility to free speech is a crippling liability; Muslims' sense of victimhood is misdirected at Israel and the West when the real victimisers are the Assads, the Saudi princes etc. How far into such a speech would he have got?

asquith said...

Yes, & I hold that Obama's approach may well turn young Muslims away from this path & towards a more progressive approach, just like he is encouraging young blacks to step forward & push for a higher status in life & if need be fight discrimination rather than accepting it & trying to accomodate it via a sense of victimhood.

Because you don't win people over by berating them, you do it by convincing them you share your values but you don't think their approach is likely to bring about a good outcome.

Surely we realise that words & ideas have outcomes, they don't just vanish into thin air after being spoken & written. Let's also bear in mind that Obama doesn't in reality have the freedom of speech that we enjoy.

McDuff said...

So, the D-squared 'shorter' version of this post would be: "Professional propagandist propagandises" then. It's alliterative, I'll grant you, but I'm not sure why you think we should expect differently.

There are a couple of things that caused significant eyebrow raising in here, and I hope you'll clarify.

For example, when you make constant references to him "channelling Tony Blair", you know how daft that sounds, right? Obama, resurgent imperial beacon of the Liberal American establishment tradition since JFK, channelling some jumped-up limey who's entire raison d'etre is to copy that liberal establishment? That sounds remarkably like you have the chain of causality entirely backwards. I hope that you've used it for literary effect rather than out of some notion that the writings of Blair have had any influence whatsoever on the new American God-King.


at least, until recently, when the entirely altruistic foreign policy goals of America and her allies have been systematically misunderstood as more of the same.

This is a joke, right?

Obama relies on a spurious balancing act by which every terrorist outrage or human rights violation emanating from "the Muslim world" has to be answered by an equivalent Western crime against Islam. At times, the effort to find such balance strains the speech beyond breaking point.

I'd suggest that the reason it strains it "beyond the breaking point" is only because Obama is unable for PR reasons to mention the shit that's happening on his own watch. He's hardly able to say "we invaded two Muslim countries on the slimmest of pretensions and slaughtered swathes of Muslims in the name of 'human rights', thus making it understandable that you folks might not only be suspicious of us but of the humanitarian rhetoric we spout" is he?

Obama at least realises, unlike Bush, that it's more difficult to claim the moral high ground if you're swilling around in the gutter. Not that it stops him trying - it just means he covers it with poetical guff.

The Heresiarch said...

Actually, yes, my view is that the Obama speech was written after at least some consultation with Tony Blair (or at least his "people"). If you read the passages in the Cairo speech dealing with inter-faith relations (of which there are several) and compare them with equivalent passages in TB's recent "faith foundation" speeches, you'll notice a degree of overlap that can't be coincidental. I notice, too, that Rick Warren is one of the advisers to TBFF. And that a couple of days before the speech, TB gave an interview in which he predicted what Obama was going to say with remarkable accuracy.

On the broader point, Obama's speech suffers from the same basic error that Blair's faith work does, which is to assume, at least implicitly, that many of the problems between "the West" and "Islam" are religious problems, and that religious reconciliation is therefore the best hope for solving them.

McDuff said...

I think that's giving Blair or "his people" rather too much credit. In any event, even if some member of the Blair Faith Foundation did help out with some wording of a speech, the man's actual hope of affecting policy in the USA is slim to none. He might work out what they're going to do and figure out a way to pretend it was his idea, but I don't think we could credit the man with influence.

As for the broader point, I think you misunderstand the point of speeches like this. They're salves and distractions, not actual statements of intent. Obama isn't Bush - he doesn't believe the things he says!