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Obama's UN speech and the clash of civilisations

Given the extreme rage displayed in Muslim countries over the anti-Islam video, it is difficult to escape the impression that significant segments of Islamic and Christian societies see themselves as involved in a millennial clash-of-civilisations kind of conflict where there can be only one victor.

From burkha and headscarf bans to caricatures of the prophet to Koran burning, fundamentalists in the west have used the cloak of modernity and free speech to drive a subtle anti-Islam agenda.  Hotheads in the Islamic world have reciprocated with violence and jihadi rhetoric, both in word and deed, thus confirming the west in its stereotypical view of Islam as a menace.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama made a strong speech (read the full speech here) in the United Nations quoting Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to buttress his point that Islam and the west must make peace. The big question is whether he really succeeded in dispelling the idea that America is not a proxy for Christianity.

It was an invigorating speech, which talked passionately about bringing an end to bigotry, intolerance and hatred based on religion, race or creed, but the bulk of it was focused— directly or indirectly — on the Christianity-Islam divide, making it tough to evade the clash-of-civilisations imagery.

Barack Obama addressing the General assembly at the United Nations.

Obama started and ended his speech with Chris Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya who was killed earlier this month when an irate Muslim mob violently protested against the video. The mob, possibly infiltrated by extremist or al-Qaeda elements, attacked the embassy with rockets and other explosives.

While talking in detail about Stevens and his love for Africa, Obama mentioned that “As a young man, Chris joined the Peace Corps, and taught English in Morocco.” One wonders if Obama was aware of the associations that the Peace Corps engenders outside America. The Peace Corps initiative, started by President Kennedy in the 1960s, was modelled on a Christian Presbytarian mission called Operation Crossroads Africa started by Rev James Robinson. Kennedy’s exhortation to American students joining the Peace Corps was that they should "follow the constructive work done by the religious missionaries in these countries over the past 100 years."

The message and imagery invoked is that of a Christian do-gooder going to Africa to help the natives.

As he warmed up to his speech, Obama spoke more on how the US was on the side of democracy, from Tunisia to Syria. He said: “We were inspired by the Tunisian protests that toppled a dictator…”. And “We insisted on change in Egypt, because our support for democracy put us on the side of the people.” And “We supported a transition of leadership in Yemen, because the interests of the people were not being served by a corrupt status quo.” And “We intervened in Libya alongside a broad coalition… because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant.”

And just in case you missed the import of America standing by the Muslim masses of these countries, Obama promised to back the people of Syria in their fight against the Alawite regime. “And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn can begin.”

The problem with all these statements is not their intent, but their import. Similar sentiments took George Bush to Iraq and Afghanistan — with enormous consequences for the Christianity-Islam relationship. The crusades were recalled by both sides.

This is why Obama’s message — that “we have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values — they are universal values”  —may have been missed. Not after he made this promise to be “relentless in tracking down the killers (of Stevens) and bringing them to justice.” Few Muslims would have forgotten Obama’s “relentless” pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and the final decision to dump his body in the Arabian Sea.

When he addressed the issue of Iran, Obama could not but have lost his Islamic audience. He said: “In Iran, we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads… Time and again it has failed to take the opportunity to demonstrate that its nuclear programme is peaceful, and to meet its obligations to the United Nations… Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy.”

This is, of course, the stated US position. But who can deny the fact that to the Shia world, Iran is leader. Since Obama later indirectly castigated Iran’s “holocaust deniers” it would not have taken his Muslim audience much to conclude the Christian US and Jewish Israel are in this together.

Later on, Obama again brought up the religious conflict imagery again.

He said: “I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalise those who—even when not resorting to violence;use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics.”

Good try, but considering that Israel is universally disliked by huge majorities in most parts of the Islamic world, one wonders if Obama was not actually accentuating the divide.

He also said: “That brand of politics — one that pits East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew — cannot deliver the promise of freedom.”

Absolutely true, but was it necessary to put Christian, Hindu and Jew against Islam?

Then again, he said: “The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained. The same impulses toward extremism are used to justify war between Sunnis and Shia, between tribes and clans. It leads not to strength and prosperity but to chaos. In less than two years, we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence. Extremists understand this. And because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They do not build, they only destroy.”

This paragraph is almost exclusively focused on what’s happening in the Muslim world, once again subtly underlining the Islam versus West conflict while actually intending to say the opposite.

The more direct references to Christianity and Islam came towards the end, and this is where Gandhi figures.

Obama said: “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims.”

This is where Obama brought Gandhi in: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit."

The problem with Obama’s speech is that despite the obvious changes in America’s policy towards the Islamic world, the underlying logic is still to reconcile the Christian world to the Islamic.

As the world’s fastest growing religion in the world (due to high birth rates, and not conversions), Islam has sent shivers down fundamentalist Christian spines, and this is why the Islam versus the West issue has again taken on the looks of a civilisational conflict.

The issue is exacerbated by the similarities of the two religions: both emanated from the same space, and are aggressive proselytisers. This cannot but lead to conflict.

The conflict is not always stated in religious terms: the West attacks Islam in the name of free speech, the latter attacks the West for routine blasphemy.

As Jug Suraiya writes in The Times of India today: “Perhaps the problem is not what fundamental Islam and fundamental Christianity don't have in common, but what they do have in common. And that is that both are assertively proselytising faiths which actively, often aggressively, seek converts. Proselytisation implies not just the superiority of my faith to yours; it totally denies the validity of your faith and narrows the scope of dialogue or even peaceful coexistence in mutual tolerance.”

He adds: “The self-congratulatory claim of the Christian West to represent freedom of speech as opposed to the supposed tyranny of silence imposed by Islam doesn't stand the scrutiny of history. The Inquisition, under pain of torture, silenced Galileo's 'heresy' against the Christian belief that it was the sun that moved around the earth, and not vice versa. The Vatican's list of prohibited books still includes many world classics, and a number of American schools partly or totally ban Darwin's theory of evolution in favour of the church-approved doctrine of 'intelligent design.”

Of course, Obama is trying to undo the harm done by fundamentalists on both sides, and one must back him for the effort. But one can’t escape the feeling that since he can’t take on the fundamentalists back home, he is taking them on in the Islamic world.

In doing so, he may have given new life to the idea of clash of civilisations without intending to.

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