President Obama is traveling to Egypt to deliver an “Address to the Muslim World.” (He’s in Saudi Arabia today.) Now, the President excels when he delivers “challenging” speeches, like his campaign addresses on religion and race. He can encourage people to be thoughtful and introspective, pointing out that they are capable of self-improvement. He works well with shades of gray rather than black-and-white; when he’s working in one of the gray zones, his rhetoric can be powerful indeed. And the word is that Obama will “challenge” Muslims in a fashion like this.
My fear is that his target audience is not ready for this. As I first read at Glittering Eye, he runs the risk of being seen as conceding, in advance, the somewhat radical proposition that the world can be divided up into religious blocs, leading up to the formation of a trans-national Muslim caliphate. Now, at Glittering Eye, Dave Schuler actually disagrees with this conclusion and does not think Obama is impliedly splitting the world up into four to six religious blocs, which is a correctly-nuanced view of Obama’s intent. I think, though, that Obama runs a risk of being perceived as falling into this trap, or at least a greater one than Schuler seems willing to concede.
One of the reasons that I think President Obama is at risk of doing is is his laughably incorrect statement that the United States also could be considered as “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” No, Mr. President, by no rational, reality-based method can that statement be justified. To be sure, we have Muslims here and they are free to practice as guided by their consciences and traditions. The most generous estimate I have seen pegs total Muslim population here as about five million. In fact, it’s likely to be something like less than half of that in reality. In a nation of more than three hundred million, we’re talking about a population that is hovering somewhere between half a percent to two percent of the overall population.
It ought to be patently obvious to the entire world — and it is — that Americans overwhelmingly self-identify as Christian. Socially, this is a nation made up of more Christians than non-Christians. If there is any particular faith that can be said to guide Americans’ decisions, that faith is not Islam.
And, as I continually underline on these pages, the government of this country is secular. We are not governed by Sharia law, we are not governed by Biblical law, we are not governed by religious tenets or theology of any faith. We are governed by secular laws, created through a republican process of divided government which has as its foundation the principle of representative democracy. Our most fundamental law prohibits the Establishment of any religion.
Finally, if one looks at total Muslim population within a nation as an index of how “Muslim” it is, the United States still falls very short. We have fewer Muslims within our citizenry than nations like Burkina Faso, Thailand, or Germany. So claiming that the United States could be considered “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world” is simply incorrect.
Which is not to say that the President is wrong about a variety of other things. America as a nation and Americans as individuals harbor no ill will towards Islam or towards Muslims as people. We do harbor ill will towards those who would do violence against us. But that is not all Muslims, it is a very small number of them; it certainly is not Islam itself.
Nor can we afford to convey the message that the United States is somehow a polar opposite to the “Muslim world.” This encourages the formation of a caliphate. Not a lot, perhaps, but it’s an issue. Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria can only find common ground if they perceive that they hvae a common enemy, and international politics being what they are, the only available enemy to accomplish that is the United States.
The best way to prevent the United States from being made into a polarizing bogeyman is not to give pretty speeches. It is to treat Muslim nations as equals and trading partners, it is to tie their social stability and economic fortunes to our own. It is to treat their citizens as human beings worthy of rights on par with those we recongize in our own citizens; it is to serve as a force for peace, stability, and prosperity in the world at large. For the most part, we do this already. Where we have failed, we can acknowledge our mistakes and try to do better. And our actions will speak much louder than the undoubtedly pretty words our President will speak in Cairo tomorrow.