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Obama Leaves Out Half the 'Muslim World'


Endy Bayuni

Jakarta, Indonesia

Endy M. Bayuni took up the job of chief editor of The Jakarta Post, Indonesia’s independent and leading English language newspaper, in August 2004 shortly after he returned from a one-year Nieman Fellowship at the Harvard University.


The Current Discussion: What did you think of Obama's speech in Cairo? What kind of change will, or won't, it bring?


Can the U.S. craft a foreign policy towards the Muslim world?


Obama's speech sent a fresh breeze into the relations between the United States and Muslims around the world. It started to clear the air, which has been polluted by tensions, misunderstandings and mutual suspicions for much of the past eight years.


Time will tell whether Obama will be able to walk the talk. But it would be wrong for Washington to translate his speech into U.S. foreign policy towards the Muslim world. There is no such thing as the "Muslim world" except in the minds of those fixated by Huntington's outmoded view of a world divided by major religions.


Even Obama recognizes the contribution Islam has made to the world of science and culture, including in paving the way for Europe's Enlightenment. Viewed this way, Islam is part and parcel of a continuum of existing civilization, not outside it.


The Muslim world cannot be defined geographically because the largest Muslim populations are found outside the Middle East, including Indonesia and India. Even America and Europe have growing if not flourishing Muslim minorities through migrations and conversions.


The Muslim world cannot be defined by race or culture either. Non-Arab Muslims, or non-Muslim Arabs for that matter, would be offended by people continually equating Islam with Arab. To do this is to deny the cultural diversity that exists among the more than one billion Muslims around the world.


Obama, a devout Christian, knows about this diversity. He was born to a Muslim father and spent four years in predominantly-Muslim Indonesia, growing up and going to school with Muslim friends.


Even on issues like freedom and democracy, religious tolerance and gender equality, which Obama mentioned as some of the main sources of tensions with the Muslim world, a generalization could be problematic.


The "Muslim world" today comprises emerging democracies like Indonesia and Turkey, where freedom and equality are part and parcel of their values, and military dictatorships and absolute monarchies. And where do we put Muslim minorities in India, China, Europe and America -- many of whom embrace universal and local values and principles of the people where they reside - in this so-called Muslim world?


There is not one single Muslim world for the U.S. government to formulate its foreign policy. Instead there are several such worlds and several different policies. How it approaches Arab countries will necessarily be different from how it deals with Turkey, Morocco, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and with Muslims in India, Europe and America.


In giving the speech, Obama had the best of intentions with Muslims around the world, but it's time we move on beyond Huntington's distorted world view to the real world of hugely diverse people. America under Obama can provide the leadership that seems to be missing.


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Posted by Endy Bayuni on June 8, 2009 1:29 PM



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