Barack Obama has made his choice. It has long been a topic of conjecture – just which Islamic capital would the President’s choice for his first speech to ‘the Muslim world’?
There were quite a few possibilities, each fraught with complexities, sensitivities and dangers. Riyadh would have been obvious, but perhaps the land of Mecca would have been too holy, and the stench of weapons deals too inconvenient.; Kuwait City is tarnished with the George Bush Snr liberation; ditto Baghdad with the risk of George Bush Jnr affirmation; Abu Dhabi and Doha would have been perceived as Gulf and oil-obsessed; Islamabad is increasingly unstable following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the bombing of the Marriot Hotel; Damascus would have provided a suitable biblical allusion, but it is too early grace the Syrians with his presence; Beirut would have been a security nightmare; Ramallah would be giving away too much to the Palestinians far too soon, and Jerusalem is their capital anyway; Tehran would have alienated the Sunnis; Jakarta would have been apt, since it is the most populous Muslim country and the President was educated there, but it hardly one of Islam’s most important capitals; Cairo is also attractive, but the presence of President Obama might have been perceived as interference in the general election campaign and the Muslim Brotherhood might protest in the manner to which they are accustomed.
Tower Hamlets would also have been a possibility.
But the President has chosen Ankara, Turkey, as the Islamic capital from which he will sound the call to prayer and praise the mightiness of Allah.
It is, of course, a constitutionally secular state which is trying to join the European Union. It is a democracy with schizophrenic elements, but the subliminal message is clear: Islam has a long and respected heritage, but it has to be syncretised with Western values and tempered with democracy and accountability; it has to be mutable; it has to espouse equality and liberty; it has rid itself of symbols of oppression; it has to abandon the quest for a caliphate - the supreme politico-religious office of Islam – and reject those who agitate for world domination.
Just as President Obama invoked the spirit of Lincoln as his personal guide, he invokes the spirit of Atatürk as the blueprint for the Islamic world. Only when there is separation between mosque and state can social advances and enlightenment values permeate. The President is espousing the virtues of the secular state, from which religion is removed from the sphere of public policy and restricted exclusively to that of personal morals, behaviour, and faith. His choice of Ankara reveals his preferred brand of Islam: private observance and personal faith; religion, religious hierarchy and religious organisations excluded from public life; Shari’a gives way to European legal codes; hijabs are discouraged; madrasahs are closed; the Islamic calendar is displaced by the Gregorian; the vernacular is favoured over Arabic; and Islam embraces Anno Domini.
In short, President Obama appears to be ignorant of why the Turkish Republic is derided, despised and judged so negatively by most of the Muslim world. The choice of Ankara is as theologically inept and as religio-politically short-sighted George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. From Ankara, the President may speak to Western Muslims and certainly those within the European Union. But his rhetoric shall not reach those parts of the Islamic world which other US presidents have also failed to reach.
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