As President Barack Obama toured the Arab heartland of the global Muslim community, one can see a glaringly missed opportunity. In choosing to speak in Hosni Mubarak's Cairo and appear cozy in King Abdullah bin Aziz al Saud's Riyadh, Obama is further buttressing the al-Qaeda leadership's raison d'etre. While the president's trip is clearly meant by his administration to be a post-Bush outreach toward the Middle East and beyond, Obama is reinforcing an exhausted decades-old White House protocol of celebrating grave human rights violators who are loathed by much of their own citizenry.
Mubarak has been able to suppress human progress in Egypt only with the backing of a series of unrelenting and poorly dealt American aid packages that arrive year after year while Egypt's wealth, youth and talent are squandered and silenced. Mubarak anointed himself pharaoh in the wake of Anwar Sadat's assassination and his idea of a fresh change leadership would likely be the installation of his son on his stale Cairene throne. In Egypt, it is change only Hosni can believe in. King Abdullah is simply a despot by another name. As Saudi Arabia was being transformed in the oil boom of the twentieth century from a patchwork of tribal oases and desert wastes to something resembling a modern nation-state, the Saudi monarchy's priorities were building palaces ahead of schools and procuring automobiles before they had paved roads. Little has changed in relative terms since the kingdom's founding in the early 1930's. A Pakistani migrant worker can be publicly beheaded for possessing heroin and a woman can be thrashed for "immoral" behavior all within the kingdom's relatively unreformed shariah courts. Both countries are known to have jailed bloggers and are "Predators of press freedom" in the language of Reporters Without Borders in Paris.
Al-Qeada's twin chieftains, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, rationalize much of their global militancy based on the perceived esoteric wrongs of these two leaders in particular. Al-Qaeda's militant demagogues believe that they must terrorize these regimes and those that continue to back them in whole or part in order to defend a faith that they perceive to be both supreme and threatened. In specific, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri loath these tired Arab Muslim leaders who they believe have committed grave sins against Islam in their foreign dealings. Though the bin Laden family fortune, to which Osama is a partial heir, was made largely in service to the Saudi monarchy, Osama broke with his family's historical line and condemned the Saudi royals as corrupt and feckless when it came to their security dependence on the United States during the 1991 Gulf War.
Al-Zawahiri has spent the majority of his adult life in vociferous opposition to Mubarak's Emergency Law regime. After Sadat agreed to an American-brokered peace with the Israelis who had been militarily occupying a massive amount of Egyptian territory throughout the 1970's, he was seen as weak and utterly corrupt. Rather than seeing Sadat as victorious for recovering the Sinai, he was cast as a heretic for the non-violent manner in which he achieved peace. Al-Zawahiri, like bin Laden, is part of his country's urban elite. Well traveled and well educated, he became disaffected by seminal political events in Egypt that became a catalyst for his simmering underground Islamist revolution.
Obama's speech in Cairo, seat of the ancient Sevener Shia Fatimid Caliphate, impressed many in world's massive moderate middle and his words seemed to be chosen with care despite the notion that the president's choice of political geography was construed as a bit careless. Calling countries "Muslim-majority" rather than simply "Muslim" is an important nuance. Such a seemingly small distinction hints at the subtle pluralism of states like Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan that have Christian minorities and other ancient historic sects in their midst. This tolerance, which once included many Jews, has suffered greatly in the post-colonial era. The creation of Israel in 1948 led many Sephardim to leave the storied Arab capitals were they had lived since time immemorial to places like Haifa and Brooklyn. Wars in Lebanon and Iraq led to many of the earth's earliest Christian populations to flee to cities as far afield as Rome and San Diego.
Wars of decolonization and occupation have painted these vulnerable minority communities de facto collaborators in their own lands. Obama's monologue sought to restore the region's dignity and sow the seeds of future cooperation while emphasizing plurality and tolerance. The American president attempted to refute violent Islamism with what I'll term "Unifying Abrahamism." Quoting the three holy books, Obama almost forced his audience to confront their shared histories as opposed to being with us or against us. While it's doubtful the Mizrahim will be moving back to Alexandria in droves or the Chaldeans will return to Mosul anytime soon, Obama's speech may at least initiate a dialogue. If diversity is considered a political strength, than these states are "Sick Men" of the twenty-first century.
Obama is keen to challenge al-Qaeda's hierarchy in the intellectual space it seeks to dominate. To the core grievances of which the men in the caves ceaselessly cite, not much has changed. Not yet. To talk of democracy in a bastion of autocracy was baffling but it is a start. But upon reflection, where else could an American president have gone? Beirut? Too divided. Baghdad? Too nihilistic. The rest of the regional capitals are dynastic dictatorships. Obama's choice of Cairo was a symptom of the synergistic dysfunction of both Arab politics and American policy. I'll be listening for the resonance of this brave, new American leader's verbal olive branch as I now will carry my blue passport face-up in the immigration queues of the Muslim-majority nations where I travel and report. President Obama has tried to begin anew, but can he, or any of our leaders, finally close the book on the "Clash of Civilizations?"
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