Interview with Reza Aslan: Muslims are all ears but Obama must send the right message

Sarah El Sirgany
12 Min Read

CAIRO: This Thursday US President Barack Obama will address the Muslim World from Cairo University. But whether Muslims in Pakistan, Senegal and Germany will relate to his words as much as their counterparts in the Arab world, is yet to be determined.

It isn’t clear whether Obama will address the Muslim world or just the volatile Middle East.

Egypt, the venue of choice, has carved itself an indispensable regional role as a mediator between its conflicting neighbors, ushering world leaders to emergency meetings with ease and confidence. The Gaza donor conference last March is a case in point. But as Muslim American scholar and commentator Reza Aslan sees it, Egypt is not the center of the Muslim World.

“In fact the Arab World itself is making up an increasingly smaller and smaller percentage of the world’s Muslims, Aslan told Daily News Egypt in a phone interview.

True. Out of about 1.3-1.5 billion Muslims, just over 300 million live in the Arab world. However, the argument about the choice of Egypt and the content of Obama’s much-anticipated speech is not confined to geography and demographics. While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which Egypt is a key mediator, is often a source of collective identity uniting Muslims around the globe – to paraphrase an argument from Aslan’s writings – issues such as US commitment to democracy promotion and reform should have played a more decisive role in choosing the country from which to address the Muslim world.

Aslan, author of the international bestseller “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam and the recently released “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, says Obama’s choice of Egypt was wrong.

In addition to confusing Cairo as the capital of the Muslim world, Aslan argues that this decision sends the Egyptian government and its ilk the wrong message – one that implies that the Obama administration is following in the footsteps of its predecessor and is willing to look the other way while authoritarian regimes “continue to quash the political aspirations of their people.

“I personally don’t think that [President Hosni] Mubarak should be rewarded for the way that he had clamped down the past couple of years on democracy activists, on the Muslim Brotherhood and on bloggers, the way that he imprisoned Ayman Nour for trumped up charges. This kind of behavior is precisely the kind of behavior that the Obama administration needs to confront if it really wants to change relations with the Muslim world, explains Aslan.

For Aslan, Indonesia would have made a better choice. With a population of about 237 million, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country and, more importantly, a democratic one.

In addition, “Islam in the 21st century will be primarily centered not in the Middle East, but in South Asia and South East Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa, not in Egypt.

Supporting allies or dictatorships?

Yet, Aslan, who once “honed his Arabic skills at the American University in Cairo, is not dismissive of Egypt’s role. The author acknowledges its importance to the US, being the second largest recipient of American aid, and its regional influence.

“Obviously the Obama administration needs Egypt on its side if it is going to continue to push for peace in the Middle East. Egypt is still a very important strategic ally for the Obama administration. But that strategic importance of Egypt is a regional importance. So if Obama was planning on addressing the Middle East then Egypt is a good place for it.

Yet in doing so, the US administration needs to tread a fine line between maintaining the support of its allies and refraining from appeasing dictatorships. That, in Aslan’s opinion, is a principal challenge.

He says an official visit to Egypt would have simply done the job: secured American interests and maintained strong relations with the North African country. But keeping US interests in mind – which are better served by responding to the economical and political aspirations of the people rather than the governments – the Obama administration should prioritize its pressure for democracy, he notes.

The current US administration needs “to pressure Mubarak to open up the political process; to allow members of the Muslim Brotherhood to run for office, because they have proven themselves more than capable of responsible governing; and to divert more funds towards agricultural and economic projects, because the truth of the matter is you can’t really have political development in Egypt unless you have economic development.

“You need to make sure the poor and the marginalized and the dispossessed in Egyptian society have an opportunity to rise out of their conditions before you could talk about things like elections, Aslan explains.

The Bush administration has done it before, but “half-heartedly as Aslan describes it. Even when it attempted to tie American aid to democratic progress and reform it did so “in a very sloppy and careless way.

In 2007, the US House Appropriations Committee voted to freeze $100 million of military assistance to Egypt, tying it to the country’s human rights record, judicial reform and weapons smuggling at the Gaza border. In 2008, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had in 2005 called for political reform in Egypt, rescinded this vote.

The solution in Aslan’s opinion is to relentlessly pressure for democracy without turning a blind eye to oppressive practices and provide the infrastructure for such reform through aid.

“What we are saying is not ‘here’s money, but in order to have it you have to be more democratic’; what we are saying is ‘here’s money that we are giving you to build up the civilian infrastructure of the country in a way that would then allow Egyptians themselves to rise out of their economic situation and in doing so become more politically conscious and more politically active’.

“What we do well is provide aid, provide funds, provide money, provide infrastructure, provide education, he adds. “These are things that America has always been known for. And if we focus our relationship with Egypt on these issues and force the Mubarak regime to divert some of the money it uses to buy tanks and guns and weapons, to build hospitals and to building schools and supporting farmers and building up agricultural programs, then you’ll see change come from within Egypt, not from outside of Egypt.

Through this, Obama’s words could resonate with the masses rather than the governments.

The real audience

“[The people] don’t want an American president to come and appease [Mubarak]. What they want is a message that trickles down to them and what they are concerned with is precisely the kind of political and economic and social development that has to come through only pressuring the Egyptian government to change its dictatorial policies.

By showing the people on the street that their aspirations are being met, the US ensures stability in the region and consequently secures its interests in the region in the long run, he continues.

This is precisely what Obama needs to convey in his speech this Thursday, he said.

“Obama needs to make sure that he’s speaking to the Arab people, not the Arab governments, because the Arab governments rarely represent the values, the interests, the desires, the aspirations, even the opinions of the Arab people.

These words need to be backed up by action for them to be taken seriously.

The core issue

But aside from using a more pragmatic approach to Bush’s fairytale idea of “democracy promotion, Obama needs to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict immediately. Through this, Obama could strike a chord with almost all Muslims.

In his book “How to Win a Cosmic War, Aslan explains how concerns about the future of the Palestinian people have become a common grievance that unites Muslims around the globe.

“There remains today no more potent symbol of injustice in the Muslim imagination than the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, he writes. “I
n some ways, Palestine has become the sole source of pan-Islamic identity in the Muslim world, the universal symbol that, in the absence of a Caliphate, unites all Muslims, regardless of race, nationality, class, or piety, into a single ummah.

Obama has already made this conflict a priority. Instead of leaving it to the end of his term as George W. Bush has done, Obama was quick to appoint his Middle East convoy George Mitchell. This month the US president met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyaho.

Aslan stresses that such efforts need to move in a fast pace towards the creation of a Palestinian state, because the window of opportunity for it is closing. Noting the increasing expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, Aslan says there are only one or two years left before the erosion of the possibility of a two-state solution.

“There has to be serious and sustained pressure from the American administration towards the Israeli administration to make the sacrifices that are absolutely necessary to ensure a two-state solution.

“I do believe that this administration is committed to charting a new relationship with the Muslim World. But at the same time, it’s an administration that has to deal with some very real issues and concerns, political concerns here in the United States and issues abroad. So, it’s going to have its hands tied a little bit.

“But I do think that this is a significant moment and I do think that the Obama administration has to take advantage of it.

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