David Silverman/Getty ImagesPraying for change: Obama wants to recast the U.S. image in the Muslim world. But first, he has to use the right name.
before U.S. President Barack Obama utters a word of his long-anticipated June 4
address to the Muslim world, there is already a problem with the rhetoric. As
well meaning as it sounds, the term Muslim world is a trap. There
is no unified Muslim world. And describing it as such legitimizes the idea that
it is us vs. them -- just the sort of divided world that al Qaeda wants to
see the trouble with the term Muslim world, one needs only to try and define
it. Who is included in the Muslim world? What countries -- or individuals -- make
the cut, and who defines it? Is half-Muslim Nigeria a part of the Muslim world
as much as the Islamic Republic of Iran? And how do different sects in internal
conflict, like the Sunni and Shia of Iraq, reconcile their placement in a
single world to American eyes? Are extremists -- such as the Taliban or al
Qaeda -- lumped together with secular Muslims?
one questions that a religion known as Islam exists or that many Muslims
believe in their global community, the ummah.
As a theological reference, however, the ummah is vaguely analogous to the
belief that all Christians are part of the body of Christ. It is a powerful
spiritual metaphor, but not a visceral part of every believer's identity. A
Muslim in Turkey, for example, might define himself as an Istanbullu first, a Turk second, and a Muslim third -- or the other
way around, depending on his mood or even the time of day. (When the soccer
club Galatasaray is playing, he is only a fan!) No one would claim that
Guatemalans, Germans, or Guineans are the same because they are Christians, and
it's equally nonsensical to lump Turks, Trinidadians, and Tunisians together
simply because they also happen to be Muslim.
term is not only an analytical error - it's also a critical public diplomacy
mistake. Muslim world unfairly and singularly assigns adherents of
Islam into a figurative ghetto. And particularly in the post-September 11, this
relegation carries a real moral hazard: By lumping together extremists,
secularists, and everyone in between, the term Muslim world legitimizes the
idea that all of the group's members are
locked in deadly conflict with the non-Islamic world. If this sounds dangerously
close to the message through which Islamist ideologues push for jihad, it is. Extremists
are the only Muslim group that
strongly advocates tying all Muslims together politically, in a united global
community. In their ideal world, the modern nation state would be replaced with
a new caliphate under Sharia law. Every
time the United States speaks to the Muslim world, then, it inadvertently legitimizes
the extremists' vision.
President Obama has a chance to get it right. He got off to a good start on May
4 in Ankara, where he admirably addressed the Turkish people as democrats
embedded in Europe. He appealed to them as allies in the struggle against
Islamist extremism while challenging them on sensitive issues, including reconciling
with neighboring Armenia. At the tail end of the speech, however, he made that
critical rhetorical slip: Let me repeat: The United States is not at war
with the Muslim world.
time, as he speaks on June 4, the Islamic world should not make a rhetorical
appearance. Instead, Obama could accentuate the rich diversity of Muslim
communities around the world, referencing the Sufis of Morocco, the Shiites of
Iraq, and the Sunnis of Singapore. He should recognize their accomplishments
within their communities while stressing other parts of their identities, such
he did in Turkey, Obama should offer his broad audience a challenge. There are
deep problems within Muslim communities around the world. Islamist extremists
continue to push their agenda of violence and chaos. Obama should offer
encouragement to the British, Egyptian, Algerian, and Iraqi Muslims (among
others) who are already fighting back, taking on those extremists and reclaiming
their communities. And he should recognize that the Muslim world is a figment
of Osama bin Laden's imagination.