President Obama appeals to the children of Abraham
When Cranmer first heard back in March that the President was intending to make such a speech, he speculated on what might be the best Islamic capital from which to make it. While Cairo was an attractive possibility, he recalls expressing a certain disquiet at such a high-profile visit being made during a general election year, and thought that Tower Hamlets might be more fitting.
Clearly, the perception of interference in Egypt’s internal affairs is of no concern at all to President Obama. And Cranmer could not have foreseen that the UK might itself be on the cusp of a general election.
But before Cranmer turns to the speech, he wishes to deal with this ‘Muslim world’ concept.
There isn’t one.
There is no more social cohesion, unity of doctrine or meeting of minds among the disparate expressions of Islam as there are between the myriad of denominations, factions and cults which purport to constitute Christendom. The ‘Muslim world’ is itself a patronisingly convenient classification of the West in precisely the same manner that ‘Hindu’ became an enduring legacy of the British Empire. The ‘Muslim world’ is meaningless because it implies a geographic entity unified by a monolithic faith – a caliphate. But the ‘Muslim world’ has no universal understanding of this, and so the concept of a ‘Muslim world’ is as meaningless to Muslims as it is to those of other faiths and none. It is as vacuous as an attempt to address to the Sikh world.
But to the speech.
It was replete with all of the great themes of ‘tension’ – violent extremism, Israel/Palestine, Iran’s nuclear ambition, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development – but there was little expressed understanding of the religio-political ideology which gives birth to the divergences.
He avoided the link between violent extremism and extremist ideology, and he omitted altogether to mention that terrorism cannot be defeated until the ideology that breeds it is confronted. That's too much of a pig in an Islamic poke, a Muslim bull in the china shop of civilisation, or an Quranic elephant in the room of enlightened theology - whatever. But the President did call for ‘a new beginning... based upon mutual interest and mutual trust’.
But new beginnings require regeneration and a mutual commitment to set aside (indeed, forget) the differences and grievances of the past. It will take more than one political speech to erase a thousand years of religious conflict.
Barack Obama (or is he ‘Hussein’ on this mission?) flatters his audience with a quotation from the Qur’an (which he terms ‘Holy’): ‘Be conscious of God and always speak the truth.’ As if the God of the Qur’an were the same as the God of the Torah and the New Testament, and ‘truth’ were a universal revelation to the world’s three expressions of monotheism. And in this ‘consciousness’ of God he alludes to the ‘peace’ and ‘dignity’ of the Muslims in Chicago as though they were hewn of the same rock as the Muslims of Cairo. And he talks of America being ‘enriched’ by their history, learning and achievements.
It’s all very nice, designed to induce soporific warm and fluffy feelings.
‘Islam is a part of America’, he assures his audience.
Well, with seven million adherents, it is reassuring that the President is aware of this.
And he says that ‘America is not and never will be at war with Islam’. It is heartening that the ‘War on Terror’ has done away with armed conflict against abstract conceptions. His preferred foreign policy approach will be ‘diplomacy and international consensus’ rather than force of arms.
Cranmer sincerely hopes that tea and persuasion can supplant armed interventionism.
He shall not hold his breath.
But after the pleasantries and homilies, the President’s comments on Israel/Palestine were surprisingly unequivocal. He referred to US support for Israel as an ‘unbreakable’ bond. And challenging those undoubted millions of Muslims who deny the Holocaust, he reasserted the truth: ‘Six million Jews were killed… Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant and hateful.’
This moved the speech into substance. President Obama not only asserts the ‘fact’ of the Holocaust, he fired calculated insults at very many in the ‘Muslim world’ by dismissing them as ‘ignorant and hateful’. And even the quid-pro-quo mention of how the ‘intolerable’ plight of the Palestinians who ‘have suffered in pursuit of a homeland’ under ‘occupation’ is hardly a counterbalance to such undiplomatic (indeed, Bush-like) language.
It is when he moves to the detail of how a settlement might be reached in the Middle East that President Obama displays an understanding of political theology which transcends most of the worlds politicians and theologians.
His ‘two-state’ solution is based on those plans which preceded him: ‘Palestinians must abandon violence’ while the ‘continued Israeli settlements’ must cease; just as Israelis must acknowledge the existence of Palestine, so must the ‘Muslim world’ acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Yet all this is done not with talk of land or rights of return, or with appeals to borders or the status of Jerusalem. He calls for peace for ‘all of the children of Abraham’.
Well done, Mr President. For there will be no peace among the nations of the world until there is peace among the religions of the world. And the key to peace in the Middle East does indeed lie with Abraham.
Cranmer has already articulated this thesis, and nominated His Holiness to preside over the religio-political implementation.
The speech carried on with a bit about democracy, a fig-leaf to Iran, an allusion to Lincoln in Gettysburg, and a bit more about Islam’s ‘proud tradition of tolerance’. But he moves into messianic mode when he exhorts the ‘Muslim world’ to ‘choose the right path, not just the easy path... We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning… a world where extremists no longer threaten our people... American troops have come home... Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own... nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes... The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth.’
And here he began to channel the spirit of Isaiah:
‘We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.
‘The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
‘The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
‘The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”’
Today, in your hearing, these scriptures could be fulfilled.
And yea there was much applause, for the itching ears of the assembled throng had been well and truly scratched.
But the slaughter of pigs and purge of Christians continues apace on the backstreets of Cairo, and the President said not a word about the suffering and persecution of his brothers and sisters, and did not mention Jesus (or even Isa) once.*
*Actually, as a faithful communicant has pointed out, he did, but it was a Quranic account of the time 'when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer'. This quite remarkable gathering, spanning, as it does, millennia, would appear to have involved 'another Jesus', not to mention another Moses...