After "the War on Terror"

Obama, Islam & Israel

“What if they gave a war and no one came?” read a bumper sticker popular during the Vietnam War. Today’s version might ask, What if they gave a war on terror and no one came?

President George W. Bush first used the fateful phrase “war on terror” in an address to Congress on September 20, 2001, identifying what he later called “the defining struggle of our time.” And though initially the 9/11 attacks united the West while embarrassing and dividing the Muslim world, in time the rhetoric of a “war on terror” reversed those terms. With just three words, the president managed to transform Osama bin Laden from a criminal fugitive into a historic military commander, the head of a new, potentially world-changing army of fanatics. The subsequent invasion of Iraq, centerpiece of the Bush war on terror, only confirmed bin Laden in many Muslim eyes as a Saladin rather than a mass murderer.

Against this background, the disappearance of “war on terror” from the diplomatic lexicon of Barack Obama’s administration—neither the president nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor Defense Secretary Robert Gates has used the phrase even once—is significant. In just a few months’ time, the administration has replaced a grandiose, counterproductive fantasy with realistic attention to a set of grievous but real problems. There is a new awareness in American diplomacy that international relations are now complicated by intercultural relations, including strange new culture-to-religion-to-government hybrids; and that the U.S. government ignores these realities at its own peril.

This awareness was catalyzed by the 9/11 attacks themselves, whose agents invoked Islam (however illegitimately) and operated on behalf of no government. The unprecedented lack of a national sponsor vastly complicated the American reaction. To respond with a religion-to-religion counterattack—a neo-crusade—was out of the question. But to define this new kind of enemy as “terror” seemed patently disingenuous to Muslims—since no non-Muslim terrorists were the object of any comparably intense American attention. Given the history of Arab-Christian warfare over the centuries, it was perhaps inevitable that Muslims would view the war on terror as actually a war against Islam. A more astute response to Al Qaeda’s invocation of Islam was clearly called for, one that would separate the attackers from the body of the world’s Muslims and would diminish, rather than inflate, their claims.

Helping the United States rise to this challenge, however belatedly, has been Obama’s most important move to date. When his candidacy was first announced, Obama’s personal history, with its links to Muslim Indonesia and religiously mixed Kenya, struck many as rich with new possibilities. In an August 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., the candidate laid out his view of “the world’s trouble spots,” describing them as “disaffected communities” full of “desperate faces...where extremists thrive.” If people in these communities see America as “just an occupying army in Muslim lands, the shadow of a shrouded figure standing on a box at Abu Ghraib, [or] the power behind the throne of a repressive leader,” Obama predicted, then the hatemongering extremists would prevail. But he pledged a better outcome:

"As president, I will make it a focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate.... We will open “America Houses” in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new “America’s Voice Corps” we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with—and listen to—the people who today hear about us only from our enemies."

When Obama gave that speech, Hillary Clinton was the favorite for the Democratic nomination; nine months would elapse before the upstart Illinois senator emerged victorious. By that time, the Republican opposition had decided that its most effective tool against Obama was to paint him as a Muslim in disguise, Islam’s “Manchurian Candidate.” The Democratic response to this strategy contained far more flight than fight. All talk of recruiting American Muslims to staff “America Houses” or serve in the “America’s Voice Corps” abruptly disappeared. The Obama campaign began to say as little as possible about the candidate’s formative years abroad. During the televised spectacle of Americana that closed the Democratic convention, one might have thought that Obama had grown up in Chicago as a member of his wife’s picture-perfect African-American family. When the presentation did depict the nominee’s own roots and formative influences, it emphasized not Kenya, Indonesia, or Hawaii, but rather Kansas, home state of his white grandparents, and his grandfather’s service in World War II.

In the process, Americans were encouraged to overlook the exotic in the candidate’s résumé and to focus only on the domestic. And so one wondered whether Obama’s presidency would resemble the early campaign or the later one. “When I am president,” Obama had said at the Wilson Center, “we will author our own story.” What authorial use, if any, would he make of his personal story in writing a more accurate version of the American national story for a global Muslim audience?

As Americans observed their first Independence Day under a black president, they had the beginnings of an answer. In early April, Obama kept a campaign promise to address “a major Islamic forum” in his first hundred days in office, speaking to a joint session of the Turkish parliament. The venue was a shrewd choice. A militantly secular country for a century, Turkey of late has begun to develop a new and more supple consensus about religion. The country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) has sought to enlarge the scope for the legal practice of Islam in Turkey, and, for its troubles, has been the target of ferocious attacks by Turkish hypernationalists and anticlericals, many of them in the influential military. The AKP’s agenda is, in part, to offer Turks a political option comparable to what has historically been available in Europe’s religiously denominated social-democratic parties—parties such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union—that formally acknowledge a religious component while upholding the essential religious neutrality of the state.

By backing Turkey’s admission to the European Union under the AKP, Obama used his first move toward the Muslim world to accomplish two goals: first, reminding the world that Islam and secular democracy have proven compatible over a century of testing; and second, lending tacit support to a friendly Muslim state’s attempt to nudge anticlerical secularism toward what in the American tradition would be called a blend of free exercise and disestablishment. Indeed, the more Turkey breaks with radical anticlericalism and nineteenth-century nationalism, the broader the common ground that opens up between Turkey and the United States. Both the deep structure of the American state and the political instincts of a majority of the American people militate against any attempt to enlist American society in a religious war. This country does not have a national religion; what it does have is a national way of dealing with religion, which promises Muslims the same freedom in the exercise of their religion that it promised Catholics when most of America was Protestant, and Jews when most of America was Christian.

For the realization of this potential, it should matter more that Barack Obama is a scholar of the Constitution than that his complexion is dark or that his given names are Arabic for “blessed” and “handsome.” In principle, Obama has no more credibility in speaking to the ummah—the whole of Islamdom—than Dwight Eisenhower had when he visited a D.C. mosque in 1957 and assured “my Islamic friends” that “under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion.” And yet it seems likely that President Obama has a far better chance of being believed than President Eisenhower did. Appearances matter hugely in the era of telepolitics, and a grandfatherly Euro-American claiming benign intentions toward Islam cannot have the appeal and plausibility of a man with dark skin, broadly East African features, and an Arabic name.

Such persons are common on the streets of Cairo, and perhaps that was a consideration in making Egypt the venue, in early June, for a fuller version of the speech that candidate Obama had previewed in 2007 at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Significantly, the president spoke not before the legislature, as he had in Turkey, but at Cairo University, and with the co-sponsorship of Al-Azhar, the world’s most hallowed institution of Islamic learning. Though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attended, Obama strikingly made no reference to him, an autocrat whose waning credibility has rested on lavish attention from the controlled Egyptian press. The president’s primary audience was not Mubarak, or even all Egyptians, but the entire ummah, the many millions of Muslims watching and listening across the globe, to whom he promised, in the title of his speech, “A New Beginning.”

To address the whole of the Muslim world was an ambitious—and unprecedented—undertaking. (Imagine, say, King Abdullah deciding to speak to the whole of Christendom.) Obama rose to the challenge by evoking a vision of Islam’s relation to the West in its full scope. He noted that Al Qaeda’s attacks came during an epochal, often fruitful cultural encounter that preceded and would long outlive them. Regarding the war on terror, his most important words may have been his quiet, simple opening sentence: “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world—tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.” What could be more obvious? And yet the obvious had been studiously avoided for the seven years in which the Bush administration stubbornly insisted it had “no problem” with Islam. Now, at long last, the truth was spoken aloud, candidly and calmly. The world could exhale.

Going beyond the brief allusion to his partly Muslim extended family that he had made in Turkey, the president took pains to portray his globe-spanning personal story as a typically American one. “The dream of opportunity,” he said, “exists for all who come to our shores—and that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average.” The line brought applause from the assembly—and so did the president’s reminder that “the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”

Though Obama did speak of “violent extremism,” he did so only fleetingly, invoking “the situation in Afghanistan” and “our need to work together.” Not once did he mention Osama bin Laden. His refusal to sound a belligerent note succeeded where the Bush adminstration’s “war on terror” rhetoric conspicuously failed: he brought the opponent down to human size (or smaller) and addressed his intended supporters in a way that implied care for them, rather than criticism. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Obama noted, “have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths—but more than any other, they have killed Muslims.” To loud applause, he quoted the Qur’an: “Whoever kills an innocent is as if he has killed all mankind.”

But the centerpiece topic in Obama’s speech was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, it would seem, the president faced a hard slog. Consistently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had rejected both the American vision of a two-state solution and the demand of the Obama administration that further West Bank settlement be halted, citing the “eternal right...of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.” Yet Obama held some cards in his hand. There was the unsatisfactory nature of what he referred to in Cairo as the current “stalemate”—a burden not merely to the Palestinians, but to Israel as well (“We don’t want to govern the Palestinians,” Netanyahu insisted in an interview in Washington). Then there is the fact that Jews today form a minority in “Mandate Palestine” (pre-1967 Israel plus the occupied territories), whose Arab population now exceeds its Jewish population by almost half a million—and every day, more young Israelis are declaring their willingness to emigrate. In his remarkable 2008 book The Hebrew Republic, Bernard Avishai notes that as many as a third of the children of the Israeli elite currently live abroad. Avishai cites a 2006 Israeli study finding that 44 percent of young Israelis “would seriously think of leaving Israel if it would result in an improved standard of living abroad.”

The attitude reflects the critical demographic point the Israeli nation has reached. In the 1960s and ’70s, young American Jews contemplating migration to Israel saw the country as a wonderful place to raise a family. Today, it seems, young Israelis dread the prospect of living and raising children as a permanently embattled minority grimly governing a permanently hostile majority. Israeli emigration remains a highly fraught topic in Israeli and American discourse; and it may be this difficult reality that the president alluded to, just days before his Cairo address, when he told an NPR interviewer that “the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israeli security”—and that “part of being a good friend is being honest.”

Honesty about religion is never easy, and especially not today, amid the new, post-9/11 entanglement of religion and politics. How much honesty can Obama muster—and how much will the various parties to U.S. diplomacy accept? If building a global order in which the West and the ummah can live together harmoniously involves the president’s addressing all the world’s Muslims, will he at some point address all the world’s Jews as well? Does the religiously neutral U.S. state support Israel’s religiously grounded law of return, by which even American Jews, facing no persecution, may claim all the privileges of nationality and citizenship the moment they arrive as immigrants? If so, to what extent, and on what secular grounds?

So far, Obama has performed a nimble high-wire act, fashioning a major overture to the ummah even as he reassures Israel and makes a conscious and public assertion of U.S. religious neutrality. Just ten days after Cairo, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered a major address of his own, at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, in which (writes Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit) “for the first time in his life he uttered the forbidden words: ‘Palestinian state.’” Reversing course and accepting the principle of a two-state solution was a dramatic concession from a Likud leader, one White House spokesman Robert Gibbs quickly praised as an “important step forward.”

Many large challenges remain for the United States in the regions of the ummah: Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions; the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and its effect on Pakistan; and the stabilization of Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the central preoccupation of the Mideast is still the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Obama administration has clearly come down on the side of those who see resolving it as the key to other regional issues. That will be anything but easy. While Netanyahu’s speech marked a change of position, he did not endorse a freeze on settlements. He dismissed out of hand a Palestinian right of return, and—perhaps most important—envisioned the future Palestinian state as “demilitarized,” with “ironclad security provisions for Israel.” “In my vision,” the prime minister said, “there are two free peoples living side by side with each other, each with its own flag and national anthem.” Yes, but only one with an army.

In effect, the kind of self-government Netanyahu laid out resembles that enjoyed by Native Americans on reservations in the United States. Will the Palestinians ever accept those terms? And will the Obama administration view such an entity as a fulfillment of what the president pledged in Cairo to support—namely, “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own”? That Net­anyahu felt the pressure of Obama’s overture to the ummah was clear in his speech at Bar Ilan. Israel was not founded as a result of the Holocaust, he insisted—pointedly contradicting a central point Obama had made in Cairo. “Our right to build our sovereign state here, in the land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: this is the homeland of the Jewish people.”

Should Netanyahu’s address be seen as a fruitful response to Obama’s overture, or a shrewd defense against it? Ari Shavit maintains that the principles Netanyahu put forth—two states plus absolute security guarantees for Israel—are accepted by the great majority of Israelis; and “if the international community rejects them, it will encounter a rigid Netanyahu and a stubborn Israel.” Time may not be on Israel’s side, and yet, as Shavit concludes, “In his own way, Netanyahu has met his moment of truth. Now Obama must.”

And so in the aftermath of the president’s Cairo speech, the question has shifted from “What will he say?” to “What will he do now?” What risks will Obama take to pursue his vision of a new beginning? What kind of president will he prove to be? Doubtless he is wise enough to know that silken eloquence in oratory only goes so far. Peace pays dividends, but not without an investment.


Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2009-07-17 issue: 

Jack Miles is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story (W. W. Norton).

Also by this author
Shop Talk

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads