Sunday, December 21, 2008

Speaking to the Muslim World

With inauguration just a month away, Americans are increasingly eager for President-elect Obama to take the nation's reigns from President Bush. The change he will undoubtedly bring may not be render itself through a long list of early accomplishments, but through a much-needed change (subtle or dramatic) in tone, approach, vision and candor. One of his first defining actions appears to be a major Obama speech delivered in an Islamic capital within the first 100 days of his presidency. The President-elect believes such a speech would “redefine our struggle” and take advantage of “a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular.” The speech will reportedly convey “a message of no-tolerance toward terrorism, while emphasizing the values America wants to share with the world.” The what has been largely determined, it's the where that has stirred international anticipation.

Obama’s plan, still in the formative stages, immediately set off speculation over where the new American president would choose to deliver his message and what he would say… Obama did not indicate where he might give the speech, but snap speculation by some experts centered on Cairo. Egypt is a US ally, and a traditional center of Muslim culture. At the same time, the country is governed by an authoritarian regime – a point that would make it a bold setting for Obama to make the case for democracy in the Muslim world.

[Other recommendations have included] either Istanbul, Turkey; or Casablanca, Morocco. Choosing Istanbul would symbolize a desire to bridge the economic, political, and perception gaps between the West and the Muslim world, he says. Casablanca would demonstrate an interest in going “deeper into the heart of the Muslim world,” while offering the added advantage of being in an Arab country – since, as Masmoudi says, the issue of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would also have to figure into the speech.

Helene Cooper weighs the various options and decides upon Cairo:

So where should he do it? The list of Islamic world capitals is long, and includes the obvious —Riyadh, Kuwait City, Islamabad — and the not-so-obvious — Male (the Maldives), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Some wise-guys have even suggested Dearborn, Mich., as a possibility.

…The consensus, after an entire day of reporting, is Cairo. Why Cairo? It’s a matter of elimination. I called Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine, to gauge his thoughts. “Damascus would be cool, except it would look as if he was rewarding the Syrians and it’s too soon for that,” Mr. Asali said. True. Maybe in a year, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gets around to a land-for-peace deal with Israel. But for right now, I’m not really seeing Damascus as the spot for the big speech.

…Jakarta’s too easy. Mr. Asali thought so too: “Jakarta? People would yawn about that.” Sure, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country — some 177 million Muslims live there — but the very fact that Mr. Obama once lived and went to school there would make choosing it seem like cheating. Baghdad? Definitely out-of-the-box, but it could appear to validate the Iraq war, which Mr. Obama opposed. Beirut? Too many Hezbollah members — Secret Service would flip its collective lid — and anyway, the Lebanese president has always been a Christian.

Tehran? Too soon for that. Amman? Been there, done that. Islamabad? Too dangerous. Ankara? Too safe. Plus the Turks aren’t going to be too crazy about being used for outreach to the Muslim world when they’re trying to join the European Union. I asked a senior Turkish diplomat what he thought. He immediately started acting, well, diplomatic. “We don’t have a problem with our Islamic identity,” he said. “But our system is secular.” Riyadh? Mr. Obama’s national security aides say no. Kuwait City? Abu Dhabi? Doha? “I don’t think it will be in the Gulf,” one foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama said.

See? It’s got to be Cairo. Egypt is perfect. It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there. It has got the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has been embraced by a wide spectrum of the Islamic world, including the disenfranchised and the disaffected. The Secret Service won’t like it one bit, but Cairo is no Islamabad. I called the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to ask officials there what they thought. Someone from Mr. Obama’s team had already mentioned the possibility, although embassy officials said Egypt has not been approached about a possible presidential trip to Cairo.

Still, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian ambassador, e-mailed me a statement. “Needless to say, the President of the United States is always welcome in Egypt,” it said. “Delivering such a speech from Cairo would no doubt reinforce the intended message. Cairo has long been a center of Islamic learning and scholarship, in line with Egypt’s central role in the Middle East.”

Michael Fullilove provides a recommendation of his own -- Jakarta:

Egypt, Turkey and Qatar have been suggested as possible sites for such a speech. But the best candidate is the country in which Mr. Obama lived as a child: Indonesia. Choosing Indonesia would throw light on the diversity and richness of Islam, which is not, contrary to lingering perceptions, practiced solely by Arabs or only in the Middle East. The country, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, does a reasonable job of managing its considerable religious heterogeneity. Going there would help Mr. Obama to reframe the debate in the West about Islam and terrorism.

An Indonesian audience would also make sense. Indonesians have been both victims and perpetrators of terrorist attacks, including the deadly Bali bombings. The government in Jakarta is an important partner in the effort against terrorism. Selecting Indonesia would demonstrate that Mr. Obama takes democracy seriously, given that Indonesia is a rowdy democracy — the third-largest in the world. It would show that President Bush’s misshapen democratization agenda has not turned his successor into an icy realist.

Reminding the world of Mr. Obama’s origins could help counter anti-Americanism. Who would have thought the United States would elect a president with memories of wandering barefoot through rice paddies and “the muezzin’s call at night”? Finally, a trip to Indonesia would indicate that Mr. Obama was serious about rebalancing America’s foreign policy. It would show that he understands the shift of global power eastward, and telegraph that Washington was finally going to take the nation — the linchpin of Southeast Asia — seriously.

Mr. Obama was criticized in the campaign as offering speeches rather than solutions. Cynics will say this time that you can’t fight terrorism with cue cards. But there is no better way to make an argument than with a speech — and for this speech, there is no better place to make that argument than Indonesia.

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