Obama to Muslims: Unclench Your Fist

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." President Obama could hardly improve on this line, from his inaugural address, during his forthcoming much-heralded major speech to the Muslim world. Better yet, he has already further reinforced this position when he announced that the United States' goal in Afghanistan was "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda," a far cry from regime change.

Obama thus recognizes that although most Muslims reject violence -- that is, terrorism, threatening other nations with WMD, and invading another's turf -- many Muslims do not favor our kind of political system or the full plethora of human rights as we list them. Moreover, to hold that we can find in Muslims who reject violence reliable partners in peace does not imply that we shall cease to promote good government -- only that we shall do so from here on with non-lethal means. We will not bomb nations to make them democratic.

Obama can here build on the finding that there is no clash of civilizations but a clash within each civilization; namely, between the moderate people who reject violence and those who legitimate it. In Christianity, it is the division between those who see Christ as a prince of peace and those who see him as the sword. In Judaism, between rabbis who interpret "an eye for and eye" as a call for compensation and the Jews who interpret the text as a call for revenge. It is a division equally found in secular belief systems; for instance, within Socialism between Fabians and Stalinists.

The same holds for Islam: There are Muslims who see Jihad as a spiritual journey of self development, or as solely defensive ("Fight those in the way of God who fight you but do not be aggressive: God does not like aggressors" [Koran 2:190]), and those who view it as a war on all infidels. There are those who those who recognize that "There is no compulsion in matters of faith" (Koran 2:256) and that when Muhammad exclaimed, "Oh Lord, these are certainly a people who do not believe," Allah responded to him, "Turn away from them and say: 'Peace'" (Koran 43:88-89) - and those who seek to "Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, and take them captive or besiege them" (Koran 9:5). One can find readily find passages in the Koran, in other Muslim texts, and in interpretations of texts and sermons that lean in both directions. However, data show that most Muslims embrace the nonviolent interpretations.

Among the then 140 million Muslims in Indonesia, 69.5 million in Turkey, and 32.3 million in Morocco, fifteen per cent or fewer support suicide bombers, according to a 2005 Pew survey. Support for suicide bombers has dropped sharply in Pakistan, from 41% in March 2004 to 5% in spring 2009. It has also dropped dramatically in Jordan, from 57% in May 2005 to 25% in Spring 2009. When asked about attacks on civilians in the United States, the large majority of respondents in Egypt (84%), Indonesia (73%), Pakistan (55%), Jordan (68%), Turkey (74%) and the Palestinian territories (59%) stated that they disapprove, a 2008 poll found.

Seventy percent or more of respondents to a 2008 Pew poll in Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania and Lebanon are concerned with the rise of Islamic extremism in the world, and majorities in Egypt, Nigeria, and Jordan feel the same way. Additionally, the majority of Egyptians (57%) see terrorism as a "very big problem" in their country, and the vast majority of people in Indonesia (72%) and Pakistan (90%) feel the same. Large majorities in these three countries also believe that violent attacks that are carried out to achieve political or religious goals are not justified. Other reports have indicated little support for terrorism among Muslims in India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.

Furthermore, while forcing regime change should not be American's mission, Obama can hardly continue to support authoritarian regimes (such as in Saudi Arabia). He can support peaceful, internal changes -- led by the people of the nations whose regimes are at issue. In doing so, the Obama administration best keep in mind that if political reforms start with free elections, these may well be won by anti-democratic groups. Moreover, the winners are likely to be supporters of terrorism and even proliferation of WMD. Hence, free elections are best preceded by other steps such as rewriting the constitution, freeing the press, and allowing moderate opposition parties to develop.

Finally, we suggest that the United States make a gift of ten million dollars to the Library of Alexandria for it to select, working with other institutions of its choosing, major texts by moderate Muslims. These are to be translated into English and other languages the Library will favor, to make these texts more accessible to people all over the world who are not sufficiently familiar with the moderate face of Islam.

Stay tuned. The president is due to deliver his message to Muslim world on June 4th.


**I will respond to the comments of those persons who are willing to identify themselves, because I hold this as essential for a civilized dialogue.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see Security First (Yale 2007). For more, go here: He can be reached at

This is a very brief summary of a much more elaborate discussion published in the September 2006 edition of Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 19(3) and Part I of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007). For commentary by others see the June 2008 edition of Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21(2) and the May 2008 edition of American Behavioral Scientist, 51(9).

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