How Obama's 'RESPECT FOR ISLAM' speech emboldened the religious fundamentalists

‘Where were women and secularists of Muslim countries in Obama’s speech in Cairo?’

By Marieme Helie Lucas

An Algerian secularist woman writes, Obama persistently opposes ‘ Islam and the West’ (as two entities/civilisations), ‘ America and Islam'(a country vs. a religion); he claims that ‘America is not at war with Islam’. In short ‘the West’ is composed of countries, while ‘ Islam’ is not.

First of all, Obama’s discourse is addressed to ‘Islam’, as if an idea, a concept, a belief, could hear him; as if those were not necessarily mediated by the people who hold these views, ideas, concepts or beliefs. Can we imagine for one minute that Obama would address himself to ‘’Christianity’ or to ‘Buddhism’? No, he would talk to Christians or Buddhists – to real people, keeping in mind all their differences.

Unfortunately, this essentialising Islam feeds into the plans of Muslim fundamentalists whose permanent claim is that there is one single Islam – their version of it – one  homogeneous Muslim world, and subsequently one single Islamic law that needs to be respected by all in the name of religious rights. 

This is the first adverse consequence of Obama’s essentialising Islam and homogenising Muslims: as much as he may criticize fundamentalists – who he calls ‘a minority of extremists’ – he is using their language and their concepts. This is unlikely to help the cause of anti-fundamentalists forces in Muslim countries.

It follows suit that Obama talks to religions, not to citizens, not to nations or countries. He assumes that anyone has to have a religion, overlooking the fact that in many instances, people are forced into religious identities. In more and more ‘Muslim’ countries, citizens are forced into religious practice **, and pay for dissent with their freedom and sometimes with their lives. It is a big blow to them, to their human rights, to freedom of thought and freedom of expression, that the President of the USA publicly confirms the view that citizens of countries where Islam is the main religion are automatically Muslims.

Many citizens of ‘Muslim’ countries want to leave religion in its place and divorce it from politics. They support secularism and secular laws, i.e. laws democratically voted for by the people, changeable by the will and vote of the people; they oppose unchangeable, ahistorical, supposedly divine laws, as a process that is alien to democracy. They oppose the political power of clerics.

Obama is claiming to defend democracy, democratic processes, and human rights. How can this fit with addressing whole nations through their supposed, hence imposed, religious identities? Where is the place for secularists in Obama’s discourse – for their democratic right to vote in laws rather than have laws imposed upon them in the name of God, for their human right to believe or not to believe, to practice or not to practice?

In this religious strait-jacket, women’s rights are limited to their right to education, and Obama distances himself from arrogant westerners by making it clear that women covering is not seen by him as an obstacle to their emancipation – especially if it is ‘their choice’… Meanwhile, Iran is next door, with its morality police that jail women whose hair slips out of the aforementioned covering, in the name of religious laws. And what about Afghanistan or Algeria where women were abducted, tortured, raped, mutilated, burnt alive, killed for not covering***?

At no point does he raise the issue of who defines culture, who defines religion, who speaks for ‘the Muslims’ – and why they could not be defined by individual women themselves, without clerics, without morality police, without self-appointed, old, conservative, male, religious leaders – if their fundamental human rights were to be respected. Obviously, Obama trades women’s human rights for political and economic alliances with ‘Islam’… ‘Islam’ definitely owns oil, among other things.

Obama remains within the boundaries of the clash of civilisations/religions. How can this save us from the global rise of religious fundamentalism, which this discourse was supposed to counter? He claims that “as long as our relationship is defined by differences, this will empower those who sow hatred…/… promote conflict…”, but the only thing he finds we have in common is “to love our families, our communities, our God…” Muslim fundamentalists will not disown such a program. In God we trust…  WLUML