Behind Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

Behind Obamas Speech to the Muslim World

When President Obama visits Turkey early next month, some observers are expecting he will use the occasion to deliver on his promise to deliver a major foreign policy speech from a Muslim nation in his first 100 days. But indications are that he will not give the speech in Turkey. The White House and State Department have not yet decided on the location for the speech, which is meant to undo some of the damage done to America’s image in the Muslim world during the George W. Bush Administration.

The President has no other trips to Muslim nations planned, but a surprise visit isn’t out of the question. Here are the pros and cons of some locations believed to be under consideration:

Jakarta, Indonesia

“It’s the most logical choice,” says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Not only is Jakarta the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation, it is also part of the Obama narrative: he lived in the city for a few years as a child. Hooper says the President “will get an incredibly warm welcome there” — which will help with the symbolism of the moment.

Trouble is, Indonesia is not exactly in the crosscurrents of the Islamic world. Despite its size, it has little impact on Muslim affairs. It is also somewhat removed from the big issues Obama will most likely address in his speech — extremism, terrorism, democracy, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. “Indonesia’s a nice place, but it is outside the mainstream of Muslim opinion,” says an Arab diplomat who asked not to be identified. “A Muslim watching in Egypt, or in Syria, or in Iraq — they will wonder, ‘Why is he speaking to us from so far away’ ”

Rabat, Morocco

“Any place in the Arabic-speaking world sends a message of outreach and dialogue,” says Hooper. The North African kingdom has been a steady U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, a fact that led then President George W. Bush to designate Morocco a major non-NATO ally. King Mohammed VI is generally pro-West and viewed as a reformer. A speech in Rabat would resonate especially with North African nations like Algeria and Tunisia, where fundamentalism and terrorism are on the rise. But Morocco does not carry much clout in Islamic affairs. If Jakarta is too far east from the Muslim mainstream, then Rabat is too far west.

Amman, Jordan

Jordan has a U.S.-educated King and depends substantially on U.S. handouts. It is also, as Hooper points out, “in the heart of the Arabic-speaking world” — literally and symbolically. It has direct links with the Middle East’s most problematic places: the West Bank , Israel, Iraq and Syria. It has also struggled with terrorism; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was Jordanian.

Like Morocco, though, Jordan has relatively little influence in the Muslim world. “Addressing Muslims from Amman may be a bit like reaching out to Europeans from … Switzerland,” says the Arab diplomat.

Cairo, Egypt

Since Mecca and Medina are out of the question — non-Muslims are not allowed there, and in any case, the Saudis frown on political speeches in holy places — the most symbolically resonant Arab city is Egypt’s capital. “Let’s face it: the people Obama really wants to reach are the Arabs,” says the Arab diplomat, who is not Egyptian. “And there’s no better place to do that than Cairo.”

Home to the Al Azhar mosque and university, the great centers of Islamic scholarship, Cairo has long influenced the thinking of Muslims everywhere. It is also, in many ways, the birthplace of radical Islam and of the precepts that underpin terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

But while President Hosni Mubarak has been a steadfast U.S. ally, his credibility among Muslims is pretty low: he’s seen by many as an American puppet who is no fan of democracy. Besides, anti-U.S. sentiment is very high among Egyptians. “I would not want to be the person in charge of security for [Obama] in Cairo,” the diplomat says, shaking his head.

Istanbul, Turkey

Ironically, the sweet spot for Obama’s speech may well be the country he visits next month, in his first trip as President to a Muslim nation. Turkey, says Hooper, is “the bridge between the Islamic world and the West, and it’s a good setting for bridge-building, for establishing increased dialogue.” In the past, many Muslims regarded Turkey with some suspicion because of Ankara’s strident secularism; Turkey was seen as a country ashamed of its religion. But with an Islamist party now in power, that perception is changing. Turkey has also emerged as a player in Middle Eastern affairs — brokering, for instance, a dialogue between Israel and Syria.

On the other hand, that whole bridge-between-East-and-West thing is a bit of a cliché; every Western leader who has ever given a speech in Istanbul has made that point. If Obama wants to be different, he may need another location. “Turkey is a safe choice, but not an inspired one,” says the Arab diplomat. “It’s like shooting terrorists from a Predator drone — you get the job done, but you don’t really engage with people on the ground.”

The Outliers

“If you really want to push the envelope, then how about Damascus or Tehran” asks Hooper. “Now that would make an impression.” Yes, but it would be seen as rewarding states that support terrorist groups, and there’s no indication the White House is considering either city. Baghdad Still too dangerous. Riyadh Obama would be seen as being in the pocket of the Saudi royal family. Oman, Bahrain … the list could go on.

In the end, though, Hooper believes that geography may be secondary to the content of Obama’s speech. “What will resonate is [Obama’s] words and policies,” he says. Muslims will respond not only to the location but also to “the fact that he’s trying to reach out — with rhetoric, and hopefully also with actions.”

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