In Cairo, Obama must thank moderate Muslims
If President Obama really wants to touch the world’s 1 billion Muslims in his June 4 speech in Egypt, he doesn’t need to spell out a new US policy or recite American expectations of liberties for Islamic nations.
He doesn’t need to cite his middle name (Hussein) or that he spent a part of his childhood in a Muslim nation (Indonesia) or that this son of an immigrant and person of color was elected US president.
No, his most powerful message would be one of gratitude, or a big thank-you for those Muslims and their leaders who have stood up for their religion against the purposeful use of violence on the innocent by extremists, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Obama can also express appreciation for countries that have resisted Iran’s support of violent groups in many countries since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
Gratitude is an essential part of Islamic practice – in praying five times a day, during the fasting of Ramadan, and in the Arabic expression “May Allah reward you for the good.” It is the easiest avenue for Obama to engage nations with large Muslim populations and to earn a fresh respect for the United States.
And it will open more doors for Washington to partner more closely with Islamic nations in turning back Al Qaeda and other groups that seek a unified Muslim community through terror.
Cairo is the right venue for such a message. It is the place where the ideas of today’s jihadism were hatched 80 years ago with the founding of the fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the president can begin such an appreciation for moderate Muslims by citing the latest, and perhaps best example of one nation’s effort to confront Islamic radicals: Pakistan’s rollback of the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
Since May 7, both the Army and the elected leaders of Pakistan have shown strong political will to block insurgents from gaining further ground in their country. The retaking of Swat Valley’s largest city, Mingora, last Saturday marks a triumph for a growing awareness among Pakistanis that a global struggle against Islamic terrorists isn’t only the West’s fight.
A restoration of democracy last year – as well as terror attacks in their cities – may have helped Pakistanis decide to unite against the Taliban. But taking this new-found struggle farther into the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border, where Al Qaeda is active, won’t be easy. The government must bring services and rule of law to the areas it has retaken as well as provide more help to nearly 3 million refugees displaced by the fighting.
But a political line has been crossed in Pakistan for the better, and US gratitude can be expressed through increased support for the civilian government.
Since 9/11, the US has had to learn how to let each Muslim country find its own way to deal with radicals. In Iraq, the war turned around after anti-US Sunni radicals were convinced to shed their alliance with Al Qaeda. And then a Shiite-led elected government was able to launch an offensive in Basra, home city to a radical Shiite cleric.
In the Philippines, the US has smartly let that country’s military take the lead against the militant group Abu Sayyaf while providing support in the background. It is a strategy that’s proving useful elsewhere.
“We will move with these various countries at a pace that is comfortable with them,” US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters in Manila last week. “The stronger the foundation we can build under these relationships, the longer they are likely to last and the more effective they are likely to be.”
Sometimes a country finds its own way to repel radical Islam without US help. Nigeria did so in its Muslim north after Islamic militias tried to impose sharia law. The militias were outlawed and some of their leaders were shown to be corrupt.
In Saudi Arabia, despite the lack of democracy there, the monarchy has curtailed radical preachers and is setting up rehabilitation centers for Muslim terrorists.
Recognizing such efforts, even if they are still small, will help them expand. Countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia do need accountable government and less corruption. But the US must take what it can get and encourage more actions against Islamists by appealing to the Muslim world’s own responsibility to live by its faith’s tenants.