Barack Hussein Obama was not addressing the Muslims; he was talking to the American people to seek legitimacy for himself. The once-upon-a-time Muslim’s landmark speech was about the Other World. A distant Barbaria.
To make the otherness more palpable, he used a couple of literary/marketing devices: Empathy and Confession. A good novelist or advertiser employs them to get under the skin of the characters. As creator, Obama appeared to be playing devil’s advocate when what he was in fact drawing attention to is that the devil has no horns, thereby demonising a whole community and making suspicion a valid possibility for the ‘potent minority’ is invisible.
In confessional mode he revealed his roots; it was the sort of thing Oprah Winfrey does. Take a situation, look pained about how it has come to such a pass, and regurgitate it. Repetition is the true modus operandi of a confession. In Obama’s case it was: I am a Christian, but I have a little Muslim skeleton in my cupboard.
That immediately imbued him with a halo. He was the come-back kid, the prodigal had returned, the baptism was complete. When such an admission is made, people are forced to listen. The assumption is that the person knows his marbles. By quoting from the Koran, Obama was drilling home the point that you cannot talk to the Muslims without bringing in religion. The Obama Empathy essentially gave a travel guide version of Islam, with algebra and calligraphy as throwaway pebbles in the stream of stereotypes that he was swimming in.
It is typical retail therapy when he says, “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition”. He is buying a stereotype. Make no mistake about that. “And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Why is it his responsibility? Is he in some ways accepting that the US is responsible for creating those stereotypes? Where was the Taliban before the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US decision to assist it? Why did Ayatollah Khomeini sweep through the Iranian landscape after the Shah of Iran was being wooed by both the Cold War chiefs? What happened to the modern state of Iraq?
His idea of negative stereotypes was no different from the good guy versus bad guy dumbing down that has become so popular. They keep a roster and at last count some one billion Islamic fundamentalists were said to be stomping all over the world.
That gave him a perspective to get down to the serious business of trying to seek a connection between 9/11 and “tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate”. It was a pathetic attempt at using the religious wars when making a case for the United States, which made him sound more like Rev. Jesse Jackson than Martin Luther King.
He was bringing in a simplistic version of history by making it seem that the West is a single conglomerate. Worse, he referred to it as a “Cold War” between the West and Muslims, quite forgetting its implications. Some commentators have already said that Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam. By doing so there is passive aggressiveness being conveyed about how tough the US is.
The reason being touted was reeking of the superficial Obama empathy: “the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam”.
Does modernity mean the vivid imagination that could conjure weapons of mass destruction and imagine that by bombing civilian areas they would find Osama bin Laden? Does globalization mean intervention and feeding the Americans such xenophobia? No one wishes to deny 9/11, but 9/11 is not the symbol of world devastation. A world where countries have 3000 people dying in a single communal riot, or when cities are bombed. If the US government wishes to use this as an example, then it must remember the several acts of terror in other Western societies or else it will be a selfish motive.
Like Hollywood, Obama used the guilt perspective. It is a Zionist model and naturally a good place to start. There was absolutely no reason to refer to the Holocaust during the speech, because the Palestinians or the Arabs or the Muslims – and the President must know these can be disparate groups – were not responsible for it.
The President made one of the most educated people in the world, the Palestinians, seem like they needed help “to develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy”. The most vicious occupation was dismissed as “continued Israeli settlements” whereas the “Palestinians must abandon violence”.
The passive aggressive quality is again manifested in his pursuit of al Qaeda. Recently, he talked about moving 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. But at Cairo he said, “We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”
It is all about America. He talked about money being given to set up schools, hospitals; he did not mention money given as military aid. He had earlier pledged to “invest in Pak democracy” to “get the job done”.
It did not take long to see that the knight-in-shining-armour persona was carrying a sheathed sword: “Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s.” This is the very nature of religion. You are a believer of a faith only when you accept it unconditionally. The purpose of measuring it is about pitting it against another. It does not mean that people do not accept the existence of other faiths, but they will nullify that ideology if it does not suit them. This also applies to nations. Colonialism is proselytisation; it need not be geographical. US colonialism sells the American Dream. The issue of tolerance is touted, but it comes on its own terms.
The reason the US is one of the most nationalistic societies is because it has no choice; it has to make sure the indigenous mental space is not trod upon. The politician needs cheerleaders. Obama himself is a manufactured totem; he appeared at a time when Americans needed to get a break from the lies that were supposed to transform them into greater patriots when their country has spent about $ 675 billion dollars since 2001 for nothing.
They did not vote for a war veteran.
People are not fools. Not the Americans. Not the Arabs.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org