Byline by M J Akbar: Thank you for the Nildus Speech, Mr President
I am certain about two things. I am a Muslim, and I live in this world. Now the uncertainties begin. On 4 June you gave what was heavily advertised as a major speech to the “Muslim world”. Does that mean that while every Christian believes in the divinity of Jesus, he can be legitimately and widely varied in his political interests, but Muslims must have both Allah and politics in common?
As an Indian Muslim I belong to the second largest Muslim community in the world. I also live, proudly, as an equal, in India, a nation that contains the largest Hindu community in the world. Do you think I have the same political views as my fellow Muslims in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal? You did mention that there are around six million Muslims in America. Were you speaking to them, or on their behalf, in Cairo? But for the accidents of life, you could have been an American Muslim, a Kenyan Muslim or an Indonesian Muslim. Would the same speech serve for all three?
Muslims live not only in different cultures and geo-political spaces, but also under different Constitutions. Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim nation, does not believe in a state religion. Pakistan, the second largest, became the world’s first Islamic republic. There are kings and autocrats and elected heads of government in the “Muslim world”, and one category that can only be described as “immoveable object” unopposed by any irresistible force. Many Muslims live on the margins. Not many seem aware of this fact, and it is possible that none of your speechwriters pointed it out, but 10% of the Russian population is Muslim. Islam came to that vast Eurasian region around the same time as the Christian church. Do Russian Muslims belong to the same “Muslim world” as Indonesians and Moroccans? The Chinese keep their Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang, a sort of closely guarded state secret, frightened that Islam might jump up and bite off Communism’s ear. Which world do these Muslims belong to? And what about the chaps in Britain, who probably went over on the assumption that Britain was still Great. Or the French Muslims, whose ears are still ringing with the famous Sarkozy diktat: “Off with their headscarves!” Where would you place them? In Above-Saharan Africa?
At one point you were kind enough to suggest that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam”. But no sane person ever accused America of being at war with Islam. America would have to be a theocracy, with Inquisition as its preferred domestic policy, and conversion as the principal instrument of foreign affairs, to declare war on Islam. I hope you will not accuse me of being pedantic, in the sense of calling a toothache a gum-ache. The conflation of Islam and Muslims is precisely the kind of misconception that encourages pre-nation-state fantasies like the revival of a Caliphate. One might add that while every Muslim was deeply committed to his faith, political disputes among Muslims began with the election of the very first Caliph, Hadrat Abu Bakr. Muslims see themselves as a brotherhood, not a nation-hood. If Islam is sufficient glue for nationalism, why would Arabs be living in 22 countries? That should have been obvious while you were snacking on Arab cookies and Islamic lemonade in Cairo.
“Islam and the West” is another phrase wandering through a dialectic shaped within the Queen of Alice’s Wonderland. Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How do you construct a relationship between faith and geography? You can have a debate on Islam and Christianity, or indeed between the West and West Asia, or the West and South Asia, or South East Asia. There is a past and a future to discuss. “Islam and the West” is straight out of 19th century Orientalism, laden with a subtext that is best left to warmongers. Peace requires a different idiom.
We understood your problem as you weaved through political and rhetorical swamps, because your predecessor managed to achieve what the mightiest of Muslim rulers failed to do – unite Muslims, albeit against him, rather than for something. But every Muslim does not need a homily on democracy. Muslims of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, who add up to nearly half the Muslim population, are not democracy-deficit.
The appropriate venue for a speech on Islam would have been Mecca, Medina or Jerusalem. But the first two cities are barred to non-Muslims or apostates; and the third would have been too toxic for an American President.
Cairo was the perfect podium for the speech that we did hear, since your true theme was not the “Muslim world” but the region between the Nile and the Indus, which I have, elsewhere, called the “Arc of Turbulence”. Those searching for a convenient caption for the Cairo oration might want to call it the “Nildus Speech”.
For the citizens of this region between Egypt and Pakistan, and particularly for Muslims, this was a brilliant gleam in the gloom to which they have become accustomed. Its great merit was justice and fairness, virtues that are repeatedly exalted in the Holy Quran. You did not deny Palestine its rights because you wanted to preserve what Israel has acquired. Of course you will be criticised for being even-handed, but you have survived worse.
It was extremely important that a President of the United States quoted the Quran’s unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, through a verse that is particularly beautiful. This will go a long way to correct the propaganda unleashed by those who controlled the White House and influenced media before you.
There was one element of your speech that did address almost the whole of the Muslim world: your stark, unambiguous condemnation of gender bias, one of the besetting sins of the “Muslim world”. If Muslims do not eliminate gender bias, they will not be permitted into the 20th century: who is going to send them an invitation to join the 21st? Barack Obama has offered the key, but it is up to Muslims to open the door.