May 23rd, 2011

by Michael Nazir-Ali

You cannot blame a politician for liking rhetoric, and President Obama’s speech on the Middle East is full of it. His favorite word “change” occurs often, and there are idealistic expressions like “a season of hope.” But what was wrapped up in the sugar coating, and will it be acceptable to the American people and those who value freedom in the world at large? A few observations on those questions:

Throughout the speech, I had a recurrent sense that he was not addressing the U.S. and its people but Muslim opinion in the Middle East and beyond. Some scholars have written about the dhimmi mentality, i.e., a subservient attitude developed towards Muslim rulers by Christian, Jewish, and other communities that were allowed to survive, but under heavy restrictions, in the Muslim world. It has sometimes been held that the West’s response to events in the Muslim world betrays a similar mentality, brought about by fear. Was the president’s speech an example of this?

The president seemed understandably but unduly optimistic about the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death. It will undoubtedly affect some of al-Qaeda’s operations, but extremist Islamism is now so decentralized that it will have little effect, for instance, on the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or even on AQ in the Arabian Peninsula. It would be a great mistake to see bin Laden’s death as the end of radical Islam. It may in fact lead to his becoming an icon or a martyr in exactly the way that the president does not wish.

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