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Obama's Cairo Moment

This is no time for clever equivocations.

12:00 AM, Jun 2, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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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.