Political Hay

False Hopes Spring Eternal

Don't expect relations with the Islamic world to improve under our newly elected president.

By 11.14.08

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"Barack Obama's election ushers in a sense of hope. Above all we can hope that America will enter a period where it brings peace to the world, rather than inflaming tensions across the globe."

With these words a local pastor began his sermon in the wake of Barack Obama's recent victory in the elections for President. Such views have asserted themselves in much of the liberal West, both inside and outside the U.S. Yet such views, though well meaning, are based on two very faulty assumptions. First, it is true that America is unpopular across the Muslim world. Muslim statements following the Obama election victory might appear to provide the reason for such unpopularity. Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, wished Obama well "as he proceeds to fix the damage done in our international system and in the Muslim world following the misadventure in Iraq." Such statements feed those legions of Western commentators who, like the pastor, believe that a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq, as part of a significant reshaping of American foreign policy, will heal the chasm in West-Islamic relations.

However, how much would that policy need to be reshaped in order to win Muslim hearts and minds? Indeed, would anything short of a wholesale Islamization of American foreign policy be sufficient? Unlikely. Because if one examines the statements of Islamist militants it becomes clear that they see the Iraq conflict as merely one chapter in an ongoing struggle with the "Christian" West, also including other conflicts in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, Sudan and so forth. So a withdrawal from Iraq would need to be followed by an abandonment of Israel to its hostile neighbours, as well as a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and so forth. President Obama is highly unlikely to go that far in his readjustment of foreign policy, especially given his call for an increase in American troop strength in Afghanistan. So much for the first faulty assumption.

The second faulty assumption built into the pastor's comments is that Muslim anti-Americanism is just about foreign policy. Well, it isn't. Muslim hostility to America, and the West in general, relates to a range of other factors, most prominently perceived moral decadence and sexual shamelessness. The export of American soap operas to the Muslim world which portray teenage dating, kissing, and living together out of wedlock with little complaint from parents causes disdain by Muslims around the world for Western society. In short, Muslim parents fear that the globalization of Western culture will lead their daughters to bring dishonour to the family.

Is the onset of the Obama administration likely to assuage Muslim concerns in this area? Most certainly not. Ironically, a social conservative such as George W. Bush is likely to have more in common with Muslim moral values than the more libertarian Barack Obama. Remember the latter's opposition to the ballot designed to ban same-sex marriage in California. During his victory speech Obama referred to "gay and straight" in the same breath, with implications of equivalence, in a way that no doubt caused many Muslim listeners to baulk at his words. In fact, rather than Obama's moral liberalism winning Muslim hearts and minds, it is far more likely to increase anti-American rhetoric from Islamist militants who will see a more gay-friendly administration as being condemned by Allah -- and therefore being a worthy target of attack. So much for the second faulty assumption.

Contrary to the pie-in-the-sky predictions of many pastors and political commentators, the Obama administration is not going to be the darling of the Muslim world in four or eight years time. The instinctive anti-Americanism across much of the Muslim world will continue, and may well increase. The big question relates to whether President Obama will have the courage or insights to deal effectively with it.

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About the Author

Peter G. Riddell is professorial dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Bible College of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and a senior fellow of the Kairos Journal.