“Even before U.S. President Barack Obama utters a word of his long-anticipated June 4 address to “the Muslim world,” there is already a problem with the rhetoric. As well meaning as it sounds, the term “Muslim world” is a trap. There is no unified Muslim world.”
Scott Carpenter & Soner Cagaptay, Foreign Policy, June 2009
In a word, no. The so-called Muslim world numbers 1.4 billion in total with followers across multiple continents. Despite similar core beliefs, however, thought in Islamic corridors is anything but homogeneous. For starters, the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam is stark. In addition, the national interests of various Islamic-Majority (I-M) states differ greatly from one another.
If we assume a Muslim world exists, strong similarities of opinion would be evident across the 40 plus I-M states of North Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. This is not the case. Leaders in Morocco are not in step with their counterparts in Pakistan or Iran, which is logical given the various constituencies each needs to satisfy. The same could be said of their respective neighbors (note: most any combination of I-M states works).
If no unified Muslim world exists, who within the Muslim world was President Obama speaking to last week in Cairo? A few potential audiences spring to mind.
I) ‘Adversaries’ (Ahmadinejad, et al): It’s possible that President Obama’s address sought to undercut the rhetorical venom of our adversaries. The stature of Muslim leaders who espouse anti-American sentiment, such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are dampened when the U.S. presents itself as a benevolent alternative to extremism.
II) ‘Friends’ (Mubarak, et al): Perhaps Obama’s intent was to reassure prominent Muslim leaders who continue to expend political capital on our behalf. The political risk is acute for leaders, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who frequently align themselves with the U.S. and our (sometimes) unpopular policies.
III) ‘Undecided Masses’: Most likely though, the President’s goal was to appeal to moderate Muslims still willing to listen. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, last week’s address was meant to move the disaffected, those with malleable hearts and minds. For example, those Muslims frustrated with the lack of progress towards a Palestinian State, but unwilling to fall in line with groups like Hezbollah.
In the end, the impact of the President Obama’s Cairo speech will be hard to gauge in the short-run. He’s currently enjoying an extended honeymoon, both at home and abroad. As always, U.S. actions will speak louder than our words, eloquent as they might be. I can think of at least 1.4 billion stakeholders interested in the Administration’s next moves.
Tags: Muslim world