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Obama unwittingly used the language of pan-Islamist radicals

By Arif Mohammed Khan
June 08, 2009 16:03 IST
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United States President Barack Obama, in his speech in Cairo on June 4, picked a very appropriate Quranic phrase, 'Be conscious of God and always speak the truth'. This phrase has been used in Quran twice -- in Chapter 4 and Chapter 33.

The Arabic word used in the phrase is Sadeed and it means something more than truth. It means apposite, relevant, to the point and hitting the target. Unlike Sidq, which means plain truth and honesty, Sadeed implies a candid and unequivocal speech directed to the service of whole and complete justice.

It must be said to the credit of President Obama that he minced no words to hit the target while addressing his essentially Arab, Israeli and Iranian audience -- the people whom his media managers have euphemistically described as the Muslim world.

President Obama dealt with a whole range of issues including war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iraq war, terrorism repackaged as violent religious extremism, the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, Iran's right to access nuclear power for peaceful and development purposes, democracy, freedom of religion and worship, rights of minorities and women and issues related to economic development and progress.

The speech was an expression of very noble intentions and understandably did not spell out, at this stage, how the Obama administration will follow up on these issues. The only exception was the Israel-Palestine issue, where the president not only promised to pursue a two-State solution, but also sent a clear message to Palestinians and Israelis to stop pursuing old agendas that impede peace.

On one hand, he asked the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, to shun violence and stop mindless killings. On the other hand, he told Israel to put an end to the settlement activities in the occupied areas, as they violate previous agreements and undermine peace efforts.

The conspicuous absence of the term 'terrorism' was a marked departure from the language of the earlier administration. Instead, Obama used 'violent religious extremism' to describe the ideology that motivates perpetrators of violence. The part of the speech which stressed on the need to make the extremists isolated and unwelcome in Muslim societies, evoked quite an appreciative response from the audience.

On the question of democracy, the president made it clear that no nation has the right to choose a system of governance for another nation. However, he stated that he will not dilute his commitment to the principle that governments must reflect the will of the governed and he shall welcome and support all elected and peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people.

The tremendous applause that greeted the remarks of the president on democracy is a powerful indication of the popular Arab desire to have a system of governance that is not only representative and accountable but ensures freedoms and liberties available in democratic societies.

It must be understood that the common man on the Arab streets is as keen and enthusiastic to have his say in the affairs of the State as anybody else. But political establishments tend to resist and suppress this democratic aspiration. Again, it is not very realistic to hope that the regimes, which deny the basic right to elect their own governments to their people, shall behave more generously in the case of minorities and women and concede their rights.

America is the oldest democracy and is perceived as a champion of democracy, but it is strange that it has all the non-democratic regimes in the region as its allies and close friends. This is one argument that has been used very effectively by America's detractors to make it unpopular among the Arab masses.

Since President Obama travelled all the way to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims (read Arabs) and made very positive and optimistic remarks about democracy, it is imperative that his administration formulate a new strategy to keep the goodwill and positive feelings alive.

One sure method to do this is to be seen as a friend and sympathiser of the votaries of democracy and not as an ally and protector of those who suppress popular aspirations.

The Cairo speech has been described as a promise of the dawn of a new age, but one aspect of the speech is particularly disturbing.  Muslims the world over are projected as one single monolithic identity, as opposed to other religious communities which are identified by their geographical or racial denominations.

Today, Islam or Muslims are not confined to any one particular geographical region; in fact more than 80 percent Muslims belong to non-Arab lands, including the US. But in President Obama's speech, a faith like Islam and a nation-State like America are placed side by side as two equivalent entities.

On the other hand, Egyptian and Lebanese religious minorities have been described by their racial denominations such as Coptic and Maronites, and not by their Christian faith.

I do not see any design behind this idiom and terminology, but it appears that President Obama has unwittingly used the language of the pan-Islamist radicals. Right from Jamaluddin Afghani to Osama bin Laden, the ideological plank of pan-Islamists has been that Muslims are not only adherents of one common religion but they constitute one single political community.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had taken the lead to oppose Jamaluddin Afghani when he came to India to mobilise support for his campaign for a Caliphate. In 1897, Sir Syed wrote two articles, in which he forcefully rejected the idea of Muslims being one political community under obligation to accept the Turkish Caliph as their political and spiritual head, and asserted that the authority of the Turkish Caliph is confined only to the areas under his control.

It is true that Muslims, as adherents of Islam, share certain religious beliefs and values. But it is preposterous to suggest that this commonality of religious beliefs makes them one single political community. The political differences in the Muslim community started surfacing soon after the death of the Prophet in 632 AD and the selection of the first Caliph. 

The history of the first century Hijra itself shows that the Muslim community was  divided by political dissensions and rivalries that led to civil wars and strife.

In fact, in 755 AD, Spain seceded from the Muslim Caliphate of Baghdad to set up a rival kingdom under an Umayyad prince.

Osama bin Laden has indirectly identified the abolition of Caliphate in the early part of 20th century as a 'humiliation of the Muslim Umma', but the role played by the ruling monarchy of Saudi Arabia in bringing about the collapse of the Turkish Caliphate is no less significant.

The 22 Arab States share not only religious beliefs but also have a common language and culture. But their political differences do not allow them to float even a confederation.

The point is that Muslims subscribe to a common religion but they do not subscribe to a common politics or common political ideology. Political sagacity demands that they be alive to these realities, and not concede ground to the radicals who work overtime to project Islam as a political reality rather than a religious faith, in order to enhance their own importance as soi disant (self-styled) champions of the Umma.

Arif Mohammed Khan resigned as minister from Rajiv Gandhi's Council of Ministers in 1987 in protest after the government moved a bill in Parliament to overturn the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case. He has since remained a consistent voice of Muslim progressives

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Arif Mohammed Khan