This Thursday, President Obama will visit the historic Egyptian city of Cairo and, in accordance with one of his campaign pledges, offer a public address in a Muslim capitol. Although it’s largely symbolic, I think this speak could offer a real transition into a new, more productive, dialogue between the “Muslim World” and the west. In particular, I’m hopeful the President can offer a more nuanced alternative to the polarizing “secular vs. Islamist” rhetoric that has so irresponsibly influenced our foreign policy.
Naturally, not everyone is so enthusiastic about Obama’s new approach. In an uncharacteristically weak article for the National Post, David Frum criticizes Obama for his choice of venue, arguing that his appearance validates Egypt’s radical elements while marginalizing other, more Western-oriented, Muslim majority nations:
[Does] ‘the Muslim world’ [include] everyone who happens to be born to a family of Muslim origin regardless of his or her own personal belief, and if it includes liberals of Muslim origin, secularists of Muslim origin, atheists of Muslim origin – then it seems almost pointless to speak to them all as a distinctive group.
Instead the President chose Egypt. True, Egypt is an important US ally. Egypt is also the intellectual centre of the most radical forms of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood originated in Egypt, as did Sayyid Qutb, the ideologist of modern jihad. This is the country of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ayman Zawahiri. It would be extremely odd to speak from Egypt and not take such men and their ideas into account.
Frankly, I think there is degree of logic to Frum’s argument: why should the US emphasize its ties to one nation in order to address “the Muslim world,” a massive and hugely diverse collection of people? Wouldn’t a more prudent approach cite tolerant, moderate regimes—Frum mentions Indonesia and Bangladesh—as examples of productive relations with the west?
To my mind, the simple answer is that our Middle East policies (and attitudes) rely far too heavily on categories and polarities and neglect the true complexity of the “Muslim World.” While Frum—rightly to my mind—criticizes the notion of addressing the world’s Muslim population as a whole, he falls into the same irresponsible polarities of George W. Bush, claiming that Egypt is “the intellectual centre of the most radical forms of Islam,” further claiming that talking “about these extremist Muslims…validates them as the most important and significant of Muslim individuals.” In this passage, Frum is guilty of the very same cultural simplifications he accuses Obama of harboring, simultaneously rejecting the President’s vague attempt to conflate “Egypt” with the “Muslim World” while arguing the country exclusively represents the “intellectual centre of the most radical forms of Islam.”
Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb both developed their extremist ideologies in Egypt. Additionally, the Egyptian government has clearly digressed into one of the most severe tyrannies on earth, effectively disabling any viable political dissent. However, President Mubarak, for all his numerous and inexcusable faults, was the first Arab leader to sign a lasting peace agreement with Israel. Cairo is also home to the American University, a vital center of western education values for the entire region. Alexandria also maintains the oldest library contained one of the first libraries on earth, an enduring symbol of Greco-Roman philosophy.
I’m not arguing that any of these attributes—from Qutb’s radical Islamist thought to AU’s influential Egyptian university—define “Egypt” or, for that matter, “the Muslim World.” In reality, Egypt has been shaped by numerous, competing theological and cultural ideas. Rather than emphasizing one for the purpose of situating Egypt into a convenient category, it is essential that any new American Middle East policy, as defined by the President’s speech on Thursday, approach this paradoxical nation—and region—with due nuance. With properly crafted language, is it not possible for President Obama to rebuke Islamic fundamentalism and extol the influence of Egypt’s universities? Would it also be so outrageous to condemn political tyranny while acknowledging Mubarak’s role as a pragmatic regional deal maker?
As Juan Cole notes in a recent interview, many Americans “seem to view the Muslim world as the new Soviet Union, as a relatively monolithic and uniformly hostile bloc of nations.” This kind of absolutist, cold war mentality Frum advances not only distorts our perception of this diverse region, but results in irresponsible policy. Although Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were committed and bitter enemies, our policy grouped them within the same “radical Islamic” category, leading our country into a huge military undertaking that had little relation to fighting terrorism.
David Frum is absolutely correct to reject the notion of addressing a unified “Muslim World,” especially by elevating Egypt’s political and cultural system as its representative. However, if the President can adeptly navigate the numerous and contradictory elements that have collectively—but not individually—defined the country’s past, he might be able to encourage a more productive dialogue concerning the diverse, and often paradoxical, elements that have similarly shaped the “Muslim World.”