The President Should Drop The Phrase ‘Muslim World’

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

barack_obama_thumbThis Thursday, President Obama gives a much-anticipated speech at Cairo University in Egypt. The president himself is billing his speech as an “occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world.” Outside observers and commentators have concurred with this assessment in order to deliver their own prescriptions or engage in handwringing over the speech’s content.

Despite differences, it seems that all parties agree that there is a “Muslim world” that President Obama can speak to. But as Parag Khanna pointed out last April, there has been no “Muslim world” in the sense of a unitary politico-cultural entity since the Middle Ages. Indeed, people of Muslim background and ancestry are one of the most diverse groups in the world in terms of geography, ethnicity, and politics. Populations of Muslim background and ancestry stretch from the United States to Indonesia and from Central Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. It makes little sense to lump such a diverse group of people into a monolithic “Muslim world.” As Khanna noted, “Speaking to all Muslims is speaking to none of them.”

Ironically enough, President Obama recognizes this fact. In an interview with the BBC previewing his trip to the Middle East and Europe, the president acknowledged, “There are actually many sides to this. Because one of the misperceptions about the Muslim community is that it’s somehow monolithic, setting aside differences between Shia and Sunni.

The Muslim country that I lived in when I was a child, Indonesia, obviously, is very different from Pakistan, very different from Saudi Arabia. And so we have to also recognize that there are going to be differences based on national identity, and not just faith.

Better yet, we need to recognize that there’s considerable political, religious, and social diversity within Muslim-majority countries just as there is diversity within our own. Making all people of Muslim background into religious automata, as the “Muslim world” formula does, is both demeaning and counterproductive.

Lumping diverse people into one box harms U.S. national security interests. First, as Khanna points out, it reinforces the “archaic Islamist fantasies” of Osama bin Laden and other global terror groups. The United States really shouldn’t be in the business of doing the intellectual heavy lifting of its enemies. Moreover, it makes it more difficult to see people of Muslim background as human beings with diverse needs, wants, and hopes -– not all of which are religious, as the “Muslim world” framework implies.

Rather than delivering an address to the “Muslim world” in Cairo, President Obama should acknowledge the diversity that exists within that construct. He should pledge, as President Kennedy did over 45 years ago, to make the world safe for that diversity.