During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he would convene a conference of Muslim leaders from around the world within his first year in office. Recently aides have said he may give a speech from a Muslim capital in his first 100 days. His hope, he has said, is to “make clear that we are not at war with Islam,” to describe to Muslims “what our values and our interests are” and to “insist that they need to help us to defeat the terrorist threats that are there.”
This idea of trying to reconcile Islam and the West is well intentioned, of course. But the premise is wrong.
Such an initiative would reinforce the all-too-accepted but false notion that “Islam” and “the West” are distinct entities with utterly different values. Those who want to promote dialogue and peace between “civilizations” or “cultures” concede at least one crucial point to those who, like Osama bin Laden, promote a clash of civilizations: that separate civilizations do exist. They seek to reverse the polarity, replacing hostility with sympathy, but they are still following Osama bin Laden’s narrative.
Instead, Mr. Obama, the first “post-racial” president, can do better. He can use his power to transform perceptions to the long-term advantage of the United States and become a “post-civilizational” president. The page he should try to turn is not that of a supposed war between America and Islam, but the misconception of a monolithic Islam being the source of the main problems on the planet: terrorism, wars, nuclear proliferation, insurgencies and the like.
This will be an uphill battle, since this view of a monolithic, dangerous Islam has gained wide acceptance. Whether we’re talking about civil war in Iraq, insurgency in Afghanistan, unrest in Kashmir, conflict in Israel-Palestine, nuclear ambitions in Iran, rebellion in the Philippines or urban violence in France, people routinely — but wrongly — single out Islam as the explanation, rather than nationalism or separatism, political ambitions or social ills. This in turn reinforces the idea of a global struggle.
Even the recent attacks in Mumbai, India, cannot be seen primarily under the prism of religion. What the terrorists and supporters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group believed to have carried out the attacks, have achieved is to make normal relations between India and Pakistan impossible for the foreseeable future. Such groups have always used regional conflicts like that in Kashmir to hold on to power.
The truth is, Islam explains very little. There are as many bloody conflicts outside of regions where Islam has a role as inside them. There are more Muslims living under democracies than autocracies. There is no less or no more economic development in Muslim countries than in their equivalent non-Muslim neighbors. And, more important, there exist as many varieties of Muslims as there are adherents of other religions. This is why Mr. Obama should not give credence to the existence of an Islam that could supposedly be represented by its “leaders.”
Who are these leaders that President Obama would convene anyway? If he picks heads of state, he will effectively concede Osama bin Laden’s point that Islam is a political reality. If he picks clerics, he will put himself in the awkward position of implicitly representing Christianity — or maybe secularism. In any case, he would meet only self-appointed representatives, most of them probably coming from the Arab world, where a minority of Muslims live.
And such a conference would have negative effects for Western Muslims. By lending weight to the idea of a natural link between Islam and terrorism, it would reinforce the perception that they constitute a sort of foreign body in Western societies, or even some sort of fifth column. Most Western Muslims want first and foremost to be considered as full citizens of their respective Western country, not part of any diaspora. And most of them share the so-called Western values.
If the idea of a Muslim summit meeting should be dropped as soon as possible, then what should Mr. Obama do? No more — but also no less — than carrying out the ambitious program he put forward during the campaign: closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, withdrawing from Iraq, banning torture, pushing for peace in the Middle East and so forth. These are not in any sense concessions to “Islam,” but on the contrary a reassertion that American values are universal and do not suffer any kind of double standard, and that they could be shared by atheists, Christians, Muslims and others.
Barack Obama should also put more faith in the capacity of the rest of the world to recognize that America has turned the page on eight catastrophic years during which its values have often been betrayed. After all, Americans have just elected a president whose middle name is Hussein. That name goes a long way with many Muslims.