Obama's Speech and Displacement in the Muslim World

07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's speech to the Muslim World in Cairo was a complete home run.

He highlighted the shared religious values of peace and justice that unify the People of the Book - -Jews, Christians and Muslims who live by their Holy texts, the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran. He addressed the differences that currently divide the faiths, and he proposed paths for dialogue, partnership and peace in the future.

Yet no speech, even one as comprehensive as the June 4th address in Cairo, could address all the vital issues. One fact that President Obama did not touch on at length was the massive displacement in the Muslim world. There are more refugees and internally displaced people in the Muslim world than anywhere else. Over four million Palestinians are victims of diplomatic stalemate in the Middle East; some five million Iraqis have been displaced by sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Millions of Sudanese have been displaced by ethnic violence in Darfur and South Sudan. In the last few months about three million Pakistanis have fled their homes to escape fighting between the Pakistani military and increasingly aggressive Taliban forces seeking to acquire territory and expand their rule.

In February, the Brookings Institution calculated that "there are nine to ten million refugees in the Muslim world, and at least 14 million internally displaced. If this was the case in the United States, there would be two million refugees and three million American internally displaced persons."

Why is displacement so high in the Muslim world? One answer is impact of conflict, as in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the explanation is broader, including bad governance. "Unfortunately, the majority of the present refugees are Muslims who are suffering from political and economic injustice in their respective countries," Dr. Muhammad Nur Manuty, Director of the Centre for Studies in Modernity and Civil Society in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, asserted in an article in the Refugee Survey Quarterly last year. One of the signal themes of President Obama's Cairo speech was the need for new understanding and cooperation to advance political and economic development.

The duty to protect people in exile, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is an important theme in the Koran, and many Muslim countries -- Syria and Jordan and Iran are important examples -- do provide refuge.

But the cost of providing refuge can be high to host countries, and, of course, displacement can destabilize entire regions by creating economic and political tensions, while impeding development and education. Reducing displacement in Muslim countries and elsewhere is an important step toward creating a more peaceful, prosperous and stable world.

The benefits will reach far beyond the Islamic world.