- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Within the first 100 days of his term, President Barack Obama has said he will visit the capital city of a Muslim country to deliver a foreign policy speech breaking new ground in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. It is a bold move that can very quickly set his presidency on course for success, or failure.

The message he delivers will cause him to navigate some fairly treacherous waters between democratic and Islamic values. And, should the wrong thing be said, or the right thing left unsaid, the new captain of our ship-of-state may find his vessel taking on water.

Mr. Obama’s speech involves three considerations - audience, location and content.

His audience is clearly defined. In descending size, it includes Muslims firmly committed to Islam’s peaceful practice; Muslims not so firmly committed but not extremist; and Muslims firmly committed to the extremist view seeking to rid the world of all nonbelievers. Only the first two groups will really hear Mr. Obama’s speech. It is foolish to believe his words will give pause to extremists - committed as they are to a world unified under but one religion and to which they attach such hostility - to reconsider their viewpoint.

The location Mr. Obama selects for his speech will also be important. Site selection honors should not go to an “unworthy” Muslim state - i.e., one lacking tolerance towards nonbelievers. Thus, Saudi Arabia, though an ally, should not be considered.

But countries where the seed of tolerance has clearly blossomed - Muslim majority democracies such as Turkey, Indonesia or Mali, or, perhaps, even a tolerant Muslim constitutional monarchy such as Morocco - should be considered. The more tolerant the country selected, the more positive is the message of tolerance toward all religions conveyed by the leader of the Free World.

But it is the content of Mr. Obama’s speech that will prove challenging. Just as our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan know not whether an explosive device lies on the road ahead, Mr. Obama will deliver his speech not knowing whether something he innocently attempts to communicate will be misunderstood, triggering an explosive reaction. Our Muslim brothers have clearly demonstrated disdain for criticism, triggering violence when interpreted as such. Consider the reactions to Pope Benedict XVI’s innocent historic observation about Islam, Danish newspapers’ publication of Muhammad caricatures, furor over a report (later proven false) that a U.S. military guard at Guantanamo flushed a Muslim prisoner’s Koran down the toilet. All provided such triggers. But, if Mr. Obama intends to say the things that need be said in his speech, he risks an explosive reaction.

In trying to curry favor among his Muslim audience, the new president may be giving thought to apologizing for actions undertaken by his predecessor. But, in taking a conciliatory tone, Mr. Obama walks a fine line. Culturally, Muslims perceive atonement as weakness. For thousands of years, the Muslim world has not only feared, but revered, the Sumerian “lugal” or strongman - of which Saddam Hussein was but one in a long line.

Mr. Obama will be measured against this backdrop. As such, he should understand any self-flagellation or “mea culpa” delivered on behalf of America will only contribute to a perception of American weakness by the Muslim world. (Consider Turkey’s longstanding reluctance to acknowledge responsibility for the World War I genocide of Armenians - even passing a law prohibiting such allegations.)

Mr. Obama would do better to focus his remarks on past U.S. efforts that saved Muslim lives and what the Western and Muslim worlds, working together, can do in the future to improve relations, forgoing apologies for perceived, past wrongs.

One issue, in particular, Mr. Obama must tackle in his speech will prove difficult for fear of triggering an explosive Muslim reaction. But, address it he must as it goes to the heart of the conflict between Islam’s believers and nonbelievers. If omitted, or not appropriately worded, Mr. Obama’s message will fail.

In 1948, United Nations member states drafted and passed with no negative votes despite wide-ranging ideological differences between the Western and Muslim worlds - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Even Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt supported it. The Declaration’s foundation belief appears in the first sentence of Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The Universal Declaration remained global law for more than three decades - until Islamic extremists took power in Iran in 1979, attacking the Declaration for representing “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” unacceptable to Muslims for violating Islamic law.

Nine years ago in June, 57 member Muslim states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, following Iran’s lead, supported a new definition of human rights according to Islam’s Shariah law under the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). The Universal Declaration and the Cairo Declaration mandate human rights coverage for groups of vastly different sizes. The Universal Declaration extends coverage to 100 percent of the world population; the Cairo Declaration to roughly 8 percent - i.e., male Muslims, excluding nonbelievers and even Muslim women.

Westerners reject subordination of Muslims to nonbelievers by accepting the Universal Declaration; therefore, why not ask Muslims to reject subordination, as provided under the Cairo Declaration, of nonbelievers to Muslims? Nonbelievers tolerating their own subordination under the Cairo Declaration signal their weakness and provide no basis upon which to build a bridge traversing the religious divide between Islam’s believers and nonbelievers.

President Obama must challenge Muslims to rejoin the fold of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, bridging this divide by recognizing “universal” human equality. An enormously gifted speaker, Mr. Obama must craft this message as only he can. The Muslim world must be encouraged to open its borders to all religions.

Mr. Obama should take a page from Ronald Reagan’s historic 1987 speech challenging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Wall separating East and West Berlin, thus recognizing freedom. In similar fashion, Mr. Obama should challenge Muslim leaders to tear down the wall separating Islam from other world religions, thus recognizing universal human equality.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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