President Obama, the Republican Party and the Muslim World
by Eric Mosher | Bennington College
Right now, the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world could be described as tenuous at best. The American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have severely limited our credibility among the Middle Eastern public in general, as has our historically unabashed support of Israeli policy. President Obama has done less than he might have to improve relations with the globe’s Muslim nations; he might have shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, or begun withdrawing our troops from the Middle East immediately upon inauguration, instead of sending another 30,000 into Afghanistan. Indeed, although he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect” in his historic 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama has left the foreign policy of the Bush administration largely untouched. And it may be hard for innocent Afghan citizens whose friends and family have been killed by drone strikes or nighttime raids to consider American actions as based on interest and respect.
But the truth is that President Obama—despite the continuation of the Afghan war, despite his reluctance to close Guantánamo Bay, despite the drone attacks in unoccupied, sovereign nations—has a nuanced understanding of the Muslim world and the Muslim faith. He understands that Islam as a religion is not the slightest threat to America, and that only a small percentage of Muslims are violently active against our country. He understands that the Middle East is made up of different peoples and different countries, and that the rise of a theocracy in Iran does not mean that every revolutionary Middle Eastern state will do the same. And in order for us to keep our relationship with the Muslim world at “tenuous” and not at “the-shit-has-completely-and-utterly-hit-the-fan,” we must have a head of state who has such an understanding of Islam and its adherents.
Not everyone in Washington has such an understanding. In fact, almost no one running for the Republican presidential nomination has one, or at least that’s how it seems from their remarks on Islam and the Muslim world. The two worst, in my opinion, have got to be Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, both Tea Party-powered candidates (Connection? Possibly.). These two candidates, both running for the presidency, have proven themselves incompetent when it comes to discussing Islam, the Middle East or American foreign policy in the Middle East. Herman Cain made sizable waves a few months ago when he stated that any Muslims in his cabinet would have to sign a “loyalty oath,” as though the Qur’an is more important to American Muslims than the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
To be fair, he has since softened his remarks on Muslims in his cabinet, stating in mid-October that he does “recognize there are peaceful Muslims and there are extremists.” While it’s comforting that he can see that much, it’s almost as painful a categorization of the Muslim world as saying there are liberal Americans and there are conservatives to describe the United States. Meanwhile, also this October, Cain referred to the “so-called Palestinian people,” a remark that is, to be sure, highly inflammatory not just to any Palestinians at home and abroad but also to most of the Muslim world, who identify highly with the cause of the Palestinians against the Israelis.
Bachmann does not show much more prowess in terms of recognizing Islam as a faith or an ideology, always mixing the two and jumping to the worst, most paranoid conclusions about a New Islamic World Order that any and all inhabitants of the Middle East are dying to impose on us. As we all already know, she fumbled recently when she asserted that Obama “put us in Libya. Now he is putting us in Africa.” Whoops. She bungled that one. Was it an anomaly; is she actually sharp as a tack? Signs point to “No.” In further reference to Libya, she seems to be worried that allowing Libyans civil and political liberties and access to democracy will instantly lead to a “global caliphate,” funded by Libyan oil revenues. Could an Islamist, even a staunchly anti-American Islamist faction come to power in Libya? Surely. But it is beyond me to imagine how a nation building itself from the ground up could institute even a regional caliphate, much less a global one. Anyway, the point is that Bachmann’s comments paint her as anti-democratic when it comes to the Middle East, and that position is not likely to win her any allies in the region. But would she even want any?
Mitt Romney, who will probably win the Republican nomination, has shown slightly more understanding of the Muslim faith, but still lags behind in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations and what America’s relationship with the Middle East should look like. In 2009, after Obama’s speech in Cairo, Romney made a very clear distinction between jihadism and Islam, which is, to me, a very good sign for someone running for President of the United States. It is essential that our President not ascribe to the rural American folklore regarding Islam: that it is inherently against the tenets of democracy, that all adherents want to wage violent jihad against the United States. So, I am glad that Mr. Romney sees and understands the distinction between violent, fundamentalist Islamists and moderate and/or secular Islamists.
But in more recent statements on Israeli-American relations, he said some things that would make a lot of Middle Easterners unhappy. In an interview with Israel Hayom, an Israeli media outlet, Romney not only said that a Romney administration’s Israeli policy would be guided and determined by Israeli leaders and politicians, but also that he does not think the United States should be a leader in the Middle East peace process at all, instead “we should stand by our ally [Israel].” While many in the Muslim world would surely be pleased at the prospect of the United States no longer trying to lead so much, I think they would be astonished if we simply did whatever Israel told us to. Along with Cain and Bachmann, Mr. Romney will not be making any friends in the Middle East if, as President, he made the United States an Israeli vassal-state.
A quick word about Newt Gingrich: through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Newt Gingrich was a staunch supporter of the idea that Muslims are as American as apple pie, and even such concepts as sharia-compliant finance can work in the United States without undermining the Constitution, or anything like that. As late as 2004, Gingrich was OK with Muslim Americans, participating in a meeting of the Islamic Free Market Institute, a group he might now call “engaged in stealth jihad.” Today, his tone has changed completely; I first noticed during the debate over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” two summers ago. He now refers to perfectly secular Muslim Americans who want to build a community center for the hundreds of practicing Muslims working in lower Manhattan as tantamount to Nazis. My concern here is not that the man has been brainwashed by the less-informed elements of the Republican party or American polity, but that pandering to Islamophobes is now Standard Operating Protocol for individuals running for any Republican seat. Newt’s flip-flop was certainly a calculated move; he and all other Americans can barely help but realize that a ton of Americans really, really hate Islam.
The rise in Islamophobic discourse and position-taking in politics is highly disturbing, and should be to anyone who honors the traditions of tolerance, freedom of association and freedom of religion that this country was founded on. Michele Bachmann is afraid that offering the same traditions and freedoms to Muslims around the world will make them more radicalized, Herman Cain is still deciding whether Palestine or Israel existed first, Mitt Romney is too busy brown-nosing Israel to realize that they need to change for the region to change, and Newt Gingrich probably has a ton of good Muslim friends, but he has to tell them to walk 25 steps in front of him when they go to the mall so nobody sees them together.
I’m not attacking these individuals as people, but as candidates for the United States Presidency. Because, without a doubt, all four would and will pander to Islamophobic elements within the American populace in order to win the Republican nomination, and eventually the general election. It is probable that paranoid and Islamophobic foreign policy decisions would be made by any of these candidates as President. Islamophobia is on the rise in the United States, and especially the Republican party; there is no denying it. Re-electing President Obama will not dissolve this new fad of hate, indeed Obama’s re-election may serve to entrench these unfair and uninformed opinions in the American mindset. But President Obama is no fool when it comes to Muslims. President Obama defended the right of Muslim Americans to build a mosque on private property in lower Manhattan; President Obama lived in Indonesia for several years as a child. With the negative image we have already in the Muslim world, we just couldn’t afford for that to happen.Eric studies political philosophy and Spanish at Bennington College in Bennington, VT. He is currently a junior. His aspirations in life concern helping to usher in a new era of progressivism in mainstream American politics.