Advancing a Free Society

Mr. Obama’s Islamic Report Card

Thursday, November 11, 2010

President Obama now concedes that his outreach to the Islamic world is an “incomplete project.” I have been teaching for well over three decades, and from my experience I can say that most incomplete grades are never made up. Now and then I run into students from my Princeton days in the mid-1970s who never managed to turn in their work, the incomplete grade, the default option, stayed on the books.

In truth, President Obama’s evaluation of his own work is off the mark. The Islamic outreach that he launched has been an abject failure. He had bet it all on his own biography. In those early days of his first year in office, he was sure that his ascendency had gone a long way toward repairing “brand America.” He and his devotees had been sure that the anti-Americanism on the loose in the Islamic world had been stirred up by George W. Bush. A man with the name of Barack Hussein Obama would surely drain the swamps of anti-Americanism in Karachi and Istanbul and Cairo and Ramallah, it was thought. Much was made by American liberals of the Pew Global Attitudes surveys that tracked the anti-Americanism in distant lands. Our solitude in the world, it was said, had grown in recent years, and was whipped up by the Iraq war and the style and mannerism of George W. Bush. But the earth had not shifted with the rise of Barack Obama and his diplomacy of “engagement.”

Those Pew surveys still bring dismal news from Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt, the anti-Americanism blows at will, an alibi for the failure of leaders and intellectuals unable to face the harvest of their own history. This anti-Americanism is unburdened by the weight of stark facts. Nearly four decades of American aid to Egypt has not bought us any goodwill in the coffee houses of Egypt, only 17% of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States. The major speech delivered to the Islamic world, in Cairo, in June of 2009, has been to no avail. Mr. Obama sought the friendship of the Turks, his first Muslim destination was that crucial and big country. The American visitor was eager and conciliatory, he told the Turks that there were two Turkish players in the NBA, he spoke of the Muslim fragments in his own identity, he was silent about the mischief of the Turkish state, its refusal to do the honorable thing by America’s war in Iraq. He said nothing of the dark, conspiracy theories about America that are normal fare in Turkish culture and letters.

For all his claims to worldliness, Barack Obama never understood the cultural taboo in many Arab and Muslim domains about breaking with your own people in the presence of strangers. “My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger,” goes a cherished Arab maxim. The audiences in Ankara and Cairo were glad to have Mr. Obama’s apologies for America’s presumed sins, but they would not think well of the man offering the apology. The new American president had never understood the willfulness of anti-Americanism, its indifference to reason, to American goodwill and benevolence.

Mr. Obama misconstrued the sources -- and usages – of anti-Americanism. A great – and forthright – Egyptian writer, Ali Salem, had some poignant reflections on the hatred of America that plays in his country and other Islamic societies. “It’s very difficult to understand the machinery of hatred, because you wind up resorting to logic. But trying to understand this with logic is like measuring distance in kilograms. These are people who are envious. To them life is an unbearable burden. Modernism is the only way out. But modernism is frightening. It means we have to compete. It means we can’t explain everything away with conspiracy theories. Bernard Shaw said it best, you know, in the preface to St. Joan, he said Joan of Arc was burned for no reason except that she was talented. Talent gives rise to jealousy in the hearts of the untalented.”

Societies fail, they can look in the mirror, or they can attribute their failings to the America that they have under their skin. They rail against America, because the verdict of their own history is unbearable. Mr. Obama’s early report card is bleak. Students I have taught have always deemed me an easy grader, Mr. Obama was all too easy on his own performance.

(photo credit: amboo who?)