The world stood at attention as President Obama gave a historic speech to the Muslim world. In mainstream U.S. media, expectations of the speech ran from highly pessimistic to cautiously optimistic. For a sizable minority in the U.S., the very idea of the speech in a place such as Cairo, Egypt, represented either a cow-towing to terrorism or, worse, a secret plot to turn the U.S. into a Muslim nation by a president who's secretly a Muslim himself.
Adulation and frenzy aside, since the speech was addressed to Muslims, what matters at this juncture isn't so much how most Americans will view Obama's historic action, but how the vast majority of Muslims will view it. With this in mind, I thought I'd offer some perspective as someone who has lived and worked in the Muslim world and has spent considerable time analyzing world events in light of a Christian missionary perspective.
First, the praise. President Obama didn't waste time acknowledging the achievements Islamic civilization has made to world history. By praising Islamic contributions to fields such as science, philosophy, and architecture, the president touched on an issue felt deeply by most Muslims worldwide -- the knowledge of a lost golden age. Although knowing this might not mean much to us, the fact that the president acknowledged some positive aspects of Islamic history probably caused a few teary eyes from some proud Muslims.
The president went on to acknowledge the tension fed by Western colonialism that "denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims" and, even more recently, how during the Cold War many Muslim nations were "often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations." The historical truth of this statement is undeniable, but thankfully, Obama didn't stop there. He also directly challenged jihadist propaganda with these words: "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress the world has ever known."
The president also touched on the religious freedom issue; promised additional development aid for Pakistan and Afghanistan; recognized Iraqi sovereignty by honoring their wishes to withdraw troops by 2012; affirmed his support for Israel while recognizing Palestinian grievances; made it clear that democracy should not be imposed on other nations by force; reaffirmed his commitment to a nuclear free world (a position that John McCain recently signed onto I might add); and made it clear that the U.S. is not seeking a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. All of these are very important steps for eroding the base of support for al Qaeda and like-minded groups.
Now, the criticism. Obama, in my opinion, went too far in emphasizing common values between America and Islam. In Obama's words, "America and Islam are not exclusive, instead, they overlap and share common principles." I beg to differ. America was founded on the Christian/enlightenment principle of separation of church and state. In Islam, the idea of a separation between church and state -- or more accurately mosque and state -- is an anathema. These ideas are worlds apart and it takes a whole lot of cherry picking of Quranic verses by liberal and moderate Muslims to try to reconcile the two.
I also felt that the manner in which the president addressed the religious freedom issue was weak. Although the president did say "freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion," he didn't touch on the reciprocity issue, which is the fact that Muslims enjoy -- and often demand -- freedom in the West to propagate their faith but deny the same freedom to minority religions in their own countries. While the president could have made a clear moral appeal on this issue, all the world got was, "Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's." Lame.
The president's address of women's rights wasn't much better. While he spoke to the issue of allowing women the freedom to wear the head scarf (translation: we're not France!), this is an issue affecting Muslim women in the West. It has little to do with the lives of millions of Muslim women living in Muslim countries. The president could have taken this time to condemn the stoning of adulteresses, absurd rape laws, the kidnapping of young Christian girls to marry older men, and a host of other rampant abuse that many Muslim women suffer by their male counterparts.
Will the president's speech make a positive difference in U.S./Muslim relations? Yes it will, but the impact will be minimal. It's very important to understand that there was very little in Obama's speech that hasn't already been said by previous administrations -- including the Bush administration. Even on the issue of calling on Israel to freeze settlement expansion, the president said nothing new. As a matter of fact, every president from Carter until now has said the same thing, and absolutely nothing has changed because Israel refuses to comply to America's wishes and America continues to bankroll the Israeli government. Muslims know that President Obama is very unlikely to change the status quo in this arrangement -- especially with Netanyahu in power.
Another reason why the president's words will ring hollow in many Muslim ears is because the speech seemed to be directed at contradicting jihadist propaganda while speaking very little to the issue that the vast majority of Muslims care about the most -- more political and economic freedoms. Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Muslims want more democracy, not less. Many Muslims, however, see the U.S. as an obstacle to democracy because we are the ones supporting many of the oppressive dictators ruling over them.
Will the speech spur a change of heart in al Qaeda members and like-minded groups? Of course not! The only way to deal with these people is to pursue an aggressive agenda, along with our allies, to disband their networks, freeze their assets, arrest the murderers, and bring them to justice. The speech will, however, contribute to eroding the base of support for radical Islam if it's followed by sound policy. Christians should pray that God gives our nation's leaders wisdom on exactly what those policies should be. Because for Muslims worldwide, actions speak louder than words.
Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War, scheduled to be released in October. For more information on Aaron's ministry, go to his blog.