During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama assured voters that his personal biography gave him a unique capacity to engage the Islamic community and challenge Muslim states to address their social and political troubles. "I have lived in the most populous Muslim country in the world, had relatives who practiced Islam," he told the New York Times. "I can speak forcefully about the need for Muslim countries to reconcile themselves to modernity in ways they have failed to do."
President Obama not only has avoided forceful talk about the failures of contemporary Islam: He has declined to mention them at all. His inaugural address, an interview on Al Arabiya television, a speech to the Turkish parliament--in none of these venues has he suggested that Islamic societies are struggling with vast injustices and pathologies. In a speech in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday Obama will have another opportunity to do so: to draw distinctions between America's commitment to liberal democracy and the violent political theology that marches under the banner of Islam.
White House officials are calling the June 4 speech "a terrific opportunity" to address Muslims from a country that "in many ways represents the heart of the Arab world." Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit expressed his delight at the choice: "It is the capital of moderation in Islam and the capital of cultural sway in the Arab and Muslim worlds." If so, then the cultural ills of Islamic societies are even more invasive than previously imagined. Indeed, the selection of Egypt--which boasts a truly dismal human-rights record--creates a painful challenge for team Obama and the left-wing base of the Democratic party.
The bald truth is that Egypt, the recipient of $2 billion in U.S. aid each year, offers a case study in the repressive consequences of an Islamic state. President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule accounts for only part of the problem. Egypt's constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia, or Islamic law, the primary source of legislation. These two propositions inspire much of the corruption, discrimination, injustice, and violence that infect Egyptian society--and the wider Islamic world.
Human rights groups agree on the basic facts: Freedom of expression in Egypt is severely restricted. Criminal behavior includes criticizing the president and uttering speech that is "un-Islamic" or harmful to the country's reputation. The state owns or controls all television stations, as well as the nation's leading daily newspapers, whose editors are appointed by the government. Artistic works that are "not in accordance with the principles of Islam"--films, books, and plays--are subject to censorship.
Thanks to the continued imposition of an "Emergency Law," first announced in 1981, there are tight controls on freedom of assembly and association. Mass arrests and detentions without charge are common, as is the mistreatment of political prisoners. Even the United Nations Committee Against Torture--often distracted by anti-American diatribes in Geneva--has found "widespread evidence" of torture and violence in Egyptian jails. "Torture is not reserved for political dissidents," concludes Freedom House, "but is routinely used to extract information and punish petty criminals."
Secular-minded observers point to these facts to account for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and militant Islam. Often ignored, however, is how Egypt's ambivalence toward religious liberty sets the stage for both political oppression and Islamic radicalism.
The Egyptian government, the avowed defender of Sunni Islam, tightly controls all Muslim religious institutions, including mosques, schools, and charities. It appoints and pays the salaries of imams, whose sermons must pass government muster. Although Egypt's constitution provides for freedom of belief and practice, the state recognizes only three "heavenly" religions--Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--and systematically denies or restricts the rights of "unorthodox Muslims" and its non-Muslim population.
The social consequences of these policies in Egypt--and throughout much of the Muslim world--follow a familiar pattern. Egypt's Christian population, estimated at six to 10 million people, is often the target of discrimination and sectarian violence. No Christians serve as presidents or deans at public universities, and they hold less than two percent of the seats in the legislature. Proselytizing and conversion to Christianity invite government surveillance and harassment. Attacks on the Coptic Christian community--including arson, assault, and murder--result in few prosecutions. The situation is even worse for Baha'is, whose religious institutions have been banned outright since 1960. Nearly all of the Baha'i community's 2,000 members are known, and often monitored, by state security services. Islamic leaders have issued fatwas condemning the Baha'is as apostates and accusing them of violating "public order"--a pretext for arrest and imprisonment.
As important as these problems are, they are symptoms of a deeper malady--the rejection of a concept of human dignity that defends the fundamental rights and political equality of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. The American commitment to freedom of conscience--the liberty to worship God as a natural and universal right--has proven to be a bulwark against political tyranny and religious radicalism. It has helped check the abuse of state power and marginalize faith-based extremism. Its absence in many Islamic societies, however, invites both tendencies. On this point, President Obama should heed the advice of a report from his own State Department: "Religious freedom is an important part of the bilateral dialogue."
No honest conversation with Muslim leaders can fail to address the most ominous consequence of Islam's philosophical shortcomings, namely, the cancerous growth of radical Islam. A vast international network of jihadis--devoted to the violent export of Islam by any means--represents a geo-political threat unimagined at the end of the Cold War.
Liberal academics complain that the Bush administration hyped the threat of religious terrorism for its own nefarious reasons. In his book Engaging the Muslim World, Juan Cole dismisses as fearmongers those who see a kind of "Islamo-fascism" at work. Cole finds such terms demeaning and divisive.
Whatever we call it, the ideology of Islamic militants is closely associated with fascism's historic hatred, its violent anti-Semitism. This presents another difficulty for President Obama in Cairo. Despite being the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel, the Egyptian government has sanctioned and subsidized the most noxious hate speech. Jews are vilified in newspapers and television programs, including a 24-part TV series based on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the anti-Semitic screed which fortified the Nazi propaganda arsenal. A report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released in May, chastised the government for failing to combat "widespread and virulent anti-Semitism" in the education system and state-controlled media.
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims rejects the idea of a violent offensive against unbelievers, and instead hopes for the peaceful spread of Islam. But scholars such as Mary Habeck, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, point out that widely respected Islamic authorities assume a Muslim duty to extend the dominion of Islam, by force if necessary. "To deny this fact," she writes, "would be to deny one of the main reasons that jihadis have gotten a hearing in so much of the Islamic world today."
This helps explain the extensive, tacit acceptance of monstrous and suicidal violence directed at civilians--at "heretical" Muslims as well as Christians and women. What kind of faith, we are entitled to ask, sanctifies acts of savagery as a religious duty? What sort of "Arab League"--of which Egypt is a member--embraces Sudan's Islamist dictator whose genocidal campaign has taken the lives of a quarter million non-Arab Muslims? What do we make of a religion that rejoices at the video images of hostages tortured and beheaded? Acid thrown into the faces of girls going to school, bombs exploding at weddings and soccer fields, children used as pawns in suicide attacks, unveiled women burned alive, the bodies of young boys mutilated--what explains this demonic cast of mind?
The problem for Barack Obama is that his presidential campaign propagated the canard that George Bush's foreign policy created anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. It's worth mentioning that Sayyid Qutb--the Egyptian author who inspired the jihadism of Osama bin Laden--acquired his contempt for America and the West after a visit to the United States in the 1950s. And, of course, the lead hijacker on 9/11, Mohammed Atta, was an Egyptian whose descent into darkness began long before Bush took office. Thus the brooding and malignant tendencies of radical Islam, with their lengthy pedigree on the streets of Cairo, will be difficult to evade.
The president will compound his troubles if he allows his penchant for clever equivocations to mute the differences between America's democratic culture and the culture of militant Islam. Liberals adopted a similar tactic in the face of rising totalitarianisms in Europe, with disastrous results. "We believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense," wrote Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II. "We do not find it particularly impressive to celebrate one's sensitive conscience by enlarging upon all the well-known evils of our western world and equating them with the evils of the totalitarian systems."
Barack Obama has used his bully pulpit, sometimes crudely, to expand upon America's foreign policy sins. There is an honored place for American self-criticism: It is vital to the enduring strength of our democratic institutions. But the national self-loathing that taints contemporary liberalism is something else. It is not a diplomatic strategy, but rather a psychological mood. It offers no remedy for the ills of modern Islam or the determined barbarism of those who murder in its name.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.