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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Posted: June 4, 2009 04:40 PM

Bush's Excellent Speech in Cairo -- What Might Have Been


Obama's speech reminds us that 9/11 needn't have led to a conflict between the West and Islam. It's a reminder of the road not taken.

Remember, after the attacks, the whole world -- including the Muslim world was on our side. America was innocent. Much of the Islamic world didn't much like Al Qaeda, whose agenda had as much to do with fighting the Saudi Arabian hierarchy as it did fighting America.

George Bush got off to an excellent start. He made a forceful case that Islam was not the enemy, but a peaceful religion that had been hijacked by extremists.

"The Islam that we know is a faith devoted to the worship of one God, as revealed through The Holy Qur'an. It teaches the value and the importance of charity, mercy, and peace." (November 15, 2001)


"[I know] that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion." (September 28, 2001)

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war." (September 17, 2001 )

He gathered together a global coalition to topple the Taliban, made more effective because it included Muslim nations.

In fact, today's speech by Barack Obama is one that George W. Bush would have felt ideologically comfortable giving in 2002.

So how did we get to the point of America being hated or distrusted by the Muslim world?

First, there were a few innocent, but damaging, slip-ups, like Bush referring -- just once -- to the efforts as a "crusade."

More significantly, while he maintained a generous attitude toward Islam, the base of his party, religious conservatives, did not -- and Bush went along. A major Protestant leader referred to Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile," another called Islam a "vile, wicked religion." Bush's spokesmen would occasionally aver that the president disagreed with such sentiments but their was no indignation and before long anti-Islamic rhetoric became absolutely commonplace in evangelical circles.

When General Gerry Boykin made his famous comments that his God was "a real God" and that of Islam "was an idol." Boykin was not fired and, indeed, was involved in torture policy. It turns out, during this time, the military intelligence briefings were arriving on Bush's desk adorned with Bible quotes. Muslims who believed this was a Holy War against them, it turns out, had at least some evidence for that notion.

All of that paled in comparison to the prolonged Iraq war and the photos from Abu Ghraib -- including evidence that torturers specifically used mockery of Islam as a torture technique.

But just as important is what didn't happen. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not combined with a major effort to win the hearts and minds of young Muslims through efforts like the Peace Corps or international aid -- or efforts to help establish schools in Pakistan not dedicated to teaching fundamentalism.

Bush, who supported domestic service programs and faith-based service, could easily have proposed every single one of the ideas that Obama proposed today:

"Around the world, we can turn dialogue into Interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action - whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster....


On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities....

And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in on-line learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo.

We will create a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries...

The United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams...."

America's real mistakes were exaggerated or exploited by America's enemies in the Arab world to cast us as hostile to Islam and Muslims. Without any American counter-examples -- young men and women helping to build Muslim societies -- the vile anti-Americanism could take root easily.

Most anti-terrorism experts believe this anti-Americanism helps Al Qaeda recruit. Instead of 9/11 becoming a moment for America and the Islamic world to coalesce around a mutual goal, it became a clash of civilizations. Instead of having a relatively small enemy, we found ourselves with a big one.