It was not an April Fools' joke. When President Barack Obama met with the Queen of the Commonwealth at Buckingham Palace, he gave her an iPod. Last week, I was half expecting the president to show up in the Middle East laden with Kindles.
He could have started with a special reading selection when he met Saudi King Abdullah. The day after, when the president spoke to the Muslim world at Al-Azhar University, I pictured him handing out another Kindle to Muhammed Sayyid Tantawy, the university's grand sheikh. Obama might have had a third Kindle for the ambassador of Iran to Egypt (for this man represents the ayatollah, who is the highest authority for Shia Muslims), who attended the presidential address.
Unlike the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, the umma, or Muslim community, has no symbolic leader, let alone a formal one. The king of Saudi Arabia; the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University (the largest, and in the eyes of many Muslim scholars, most prestigious Islamic center of learning); and the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran all make equal claims to represent the heart and soul of the umma.
They have their differences. The king is the protector of the holy shrine of Islam and a political leader. The grand sheikh has no formal political power, but it is not an exaggeration to say his institution is one of the most influential in the Muslim world. And Iran not only claims spiritual power but pursues political and military dominance. The issue of who speaks for Islam is perhaps the worst nightmare for the U.S.; this is not fully appreciated by the crafters of American foreign policy. This makes a discussion of the relationship between Islam and the West much more problematic than the president's speechwriters realize.
Like former U.S. presidents, Obama denounced Islamic extremism without once associating Islam with extremism. He firmly stated that America is not at war with Islam and will never be; and he invited the Muslim world to join hands with the U.S. to fight extremism tooth and nail.
However, Islamic extremism can be read in two ways. The first is in its foreign policy implications for the United States -- that is, in its expansionist or jihadi meaning. Al-Qaida-like attacks on American soil against Americans or American interests will be met with force, the president promised. That's an easy position to take because for the United States; it's a position of self-defense. It is not America that is at war with Islam. It is Islam that is at war with America.
The second sense of the word "extremism," used many times by the president, is as a euphemism for the application of Islamic law, or sharia, in Muslim countries. This, the president evidently hopes to counter by wooing the Muslim street.
The courtship articulated in his speech was peppered with false praise (". . . it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed . . . our mastery of pens and printing"), feigned common principles and made ridiculous promises to fight negative stereotyping of Islam wherever he encounters it.
This is all part of political rhetoric, but it really doesn't lead to concrete change. This, in my view, is the wrong strategy. Instead of pretending that Muslims invented printing, the president should be confronting them with the key products of the Western printing press. And it's here that Kindles really could be of use.
I imagined him offering the king, the sheikh and the ayatollah each a Kindle with Abraham Lincoln's passionate case that he made against slavery and for equality. Obama reminded the Muslim world that "black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."
Nowhere in the world is bigotry so rampant as in Muslim countries. No difference is greater between American and Islamic principles than the founding ideals of both. It is on the basis of the founding ideals of Islam that al-Qaida and other Muslim puritans insist on the implementation of sharia law, jihad and the eternal subjection of women. It is on the basis of the founding ideals of America that blacks and women fought for -- and gained -- equal rights and gays and new immigrants continue to do so. I wish the president were so candid as to say that. But, perhaps, that is something for a later stage in the courtship.
I would also include Thomas Jefferson's improvements on the New Testament. The king, the sheikh and the ayatollah might not cut and paste the Quran, but together they have the authority to rule that parts of the Holy Book no longer apply in the modern world. For instance, the edicts of sharia law that reject innovation and scientific inquiry and order all Muslims to spread Islam.
Of course, no reading selection would be complete without a copy of the United States Constitution, highlighting (because you can do that in a Kindle) the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.
And for good measure, I would also add JFK's inaugural address: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. . . . To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required. . . . To those nations who would make themselves our adversary ... (w)e dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. . . . Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." Not to mention woman.
Obama promised to launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim majority countries to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. Does he realize that the transfer of ideas also creates opportunities for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia to punish the practice of un-Islamic ideas?
That poor girl in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, who, after seven men raped her, was sentenced to flogging, had succumbed to the novel idea of flirting by cell phone. In the Kingdom, every Friday, cruel and unusual punishment is perpetrated, far worse than anything John Adams saw in his time. The hands of those suspected of stealing -- mostly poor, immigrant workers -- are amputated.
The more one is dark-skinned in Saudi Arabia, the bleaker his circumstances, not to mention hers. For in the Kingdom, black is still considered to be inferior. Men and women convicted of adultery, apostasy, treason and other "offenses" are beheaded. Thousands of women are rotting in Saudi jails, waiting to be flogged, or are flogged daily for acts such as mingling with men, improper attire, fornication and virtual relationships on the Internet and cell phones.
Promotion of literacy for girls, which the president wants to help pursue, is a noble cause. But, unless sharia laws are repealed, more girls will find themselves in flogging pens rather than rising up the career ladder.
Barack Obama, a historic president in a historic moment, promised to host a summit of entrepreneurship in Muslim-majority countries "to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Muslim countries around the world."
I wish he would host a reading summit where we truly "say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts that too often are said only behind closed doors." For too many of us born into Islam, saying those things openly can land us in jail or in the graveyard.