In the midst of an astonishing Twitter and Facebook revolution1 that has unleashed a frantic generational demand for democracy and regime change in many countries of the Middle East, and North Africa, the Arab-Muslim world has become a strategic chess match between the United States and the mullah-ruled country of Iran. At stake is President Barack Obama's overall foreign policy approach involving democratic reform, and the political vehicle being used to successfully propagate it—the administration's Internet Freedom Agenda.2
But directly connected to it is his international religious freedom policy; and when tied to his overall approach to foreign policy one discovers an emerging "Obama doctrine"—what I call "Obama's Olive Branch Doctrine"—which relies on calculated notions of interfaith understanding and tolerance as the best components toward achieving democratic reform in today's world, and specifically in the Arab-Muslim world. To understand the religious aspect of Mr. Obama's nascent foreign policy, one must first understand it in context of the current political and revolutionary fervor sweeping the Arab world.
The Stakes Are High
Four days after Egypt's bold revolutionary success, this chivalrous chess match became more vivid when President Obama sharply contrasted Egypt's reasonably peaceful revolution with Iran's violent repression of its own protesters, who have been calling for the overthrow of its clerical regime. He said, "I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully."3 The same day, the Iranian Parliament, from direct pressure by the country's clerical rulers, called for the immediate execution of all opposition leaders.4 So much for freedom!
Siding with the United States in an effort to keep a strategic check on Iran are the autocratic monarchical rulers of Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab League, which makes up all the Gulf States, North Africa, and the Mediterranean corridor. Iran's Persian-speaking Shias do not rub shoulders easily with the Sunni Arabs of the southern Mediterranean, whom they regard as their cultural inferiors. For now, Arab unrest appears to be enriching Iran's power and influence over the chief Sunni proponent, Saudi Arabia.5 Saudi Arabia, while clearly nervous, acts cocksure that it will survive the current unrest. Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, boasted recently that "Saudi Arabia is immune" to the protests because it is guided by religious law that its citizens will not question."6
But when the dust settles, who will the real winner be? Iran? Or the young people of the Middle East, who have the opportunity to at last be free of their autocratic rulers, which is due in large part to the fast-paced technology coming from the West? Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed that Islam and Islamic values were the winner in Egypt, proclaiming that an "Islamic awakening" had occurred. For him it was an Allah-inspired beginning.
The editors of The Economist magazine wryly noted that while Iran's revolution of 1978-1979 was Islamic to the core, Egypt's was not— "or not yet." This is because Mr. Khamenei believes that "the fall of Mr. Mubarak can only usher in a government less friendly to Israel and less of a 'servant,'. . . of the United States—a government more after Iran's own revolutionary heart." And he may be right, because the potential of "an alliance between revolutionary Iran and Islamist elements in a new Egyptian government"—or Tunisian, Moroccan, Yemeni, Omani, Saudi, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian governments—is not far-fetched.7
The United States is definitely in a tough spot. Mr. Obama admonished autocratic leaders, both "friend and foe alike," to "get out ahead of change" because "the world is changing." He said that advances in freedom of communication through smart phones, Facebook, and Twitter were forcing governments to act with the consent of the people, and that they could not afford to be "behind the curve."8 Admittedly, however, the swiftness of the current unrest in the Middle East has also caught Mr. Obama off guard; this, even despite Mr. Obama's foresight in August of 2010 to assign a special commission to study all of the best innovative approaches to democratic reform in the Arab-Muslim world.9
But that is not how he began his presidency in 2009.
Students at Cairo University listen to President Barack Obama during his speech there on June 4, 2009.
Cairo and the Emergence of the "Olive Branch Doctrine"
It was in Turkey, and then Cairo, barely five months into the first full year of his presidency, that Mr. Obama confidently launched his foreign policy legacy and his diplomatic push for democratic reform in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, using Turkey and Indonesia as models of democracy—"road maps" that the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, including Egypt, should emulate.10
On June 4, 2009, in a speech before Egypt's government, military, and religious leaders titled "A New Beginning," Mr. Obama put forward his policy goals affecting this volatile region. In it he stressed political, civil, and economic freedom: "I have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose."11 The primary purpose of the speech was to address the matter of religious freedom and tolerance. And he frequently interchanged these terms to meet the Arab-Muslim community halfway.
Yet, in a bit of historical irony, President Obama came to Cairo in 2009 with the purpose of announcing to the Arab-Muslim world that during his presidency he was not following his predecessor's "Democracy Project" as a matter of U.S. Middle East policy. One could call this Obama's "Olive Branch" doctrine. The message was that religious tolerance, rather than the insistence of religious freedom and democracy, would be the foreign policy model pursued by the Obama administration. By "religious tolerance" Mr. Obama, in a stroke of supposed foreign policy realism, was communicating to Egyptians and all of the Arab-Muslim world that it was not the purpose of the United States to try to convert anyone to its way of thinking, politically or religiously.
Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, praised President Obama's speech, saying that it demonstrated that Obama understood the complexities that existed between freedom and tolerance in the Arab-Muslim world, and that he was an American president that Arab leaders could trust. He said, "Under the past administration there was a feeling that the Islamic world was a group of terrorists, Islam was hated and Muslims should be watched and that the previous administration was scared of any Muslim." "But," he observed, "Obama came and said, 'We will not fight Muslims and Islam.'" Mubarak concluded that Mr. Obama's attempt to reach out to the Arab-Muslim world placed the United States in a more positive light in the eyes of individual Muslims, and not just with Arab leaders.12 Mubarak's words were uncannily predictive of something to come, something that included him and the country he governed for nearly 30 years.
The Muslim peoples of the Arab-Muslim Middle East have seen a political opening to take things into their own hands. In a shared cause of resistance to Western leaders who have been perceived—however erroneously—as wanting (since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) to supplant Islam and their way of life, the people no longer see the need of continuing to harness their "strong horse" dictators whom Western leaders have propped up for years in the name of regional stability and security.13
The U. S. communicated caution and patience in the midst of the revolutionary demands of the people.14 This "safe" approach initially caused many of the protesters in Egypt to accuse Mr. Obama and the United States, of hypocrisy.
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, June 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims," declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."
Obama's Interfaith Vision
President Obama appears to have a foreign policy objective in mind toward advancing democracy and democratic reform throughout the world, and particularly in the Arab-Muslim Middle East. If there is one move President Obama seems to be counting on, it is the promise he sees in both Indonesia and Turkey as models for bringing both the East and West together. It represents a subtle yet distinct shift toward religious "tolerance," away from the ideal of "freedom"—or somewhere in between—as the national and international norm.
It is a rather optimistic model that is rarely recognized or understood by pundits, foreign policy scholars, and the media—left, right, and center. It is a grand strategy that quietly sails through the criticism in a steady and self-convinced manner, representing Obama's clear affinity with the young protesters—not only supporting their yearning for freedom and democracy, but risking dumping a century's worth of U.S. support for Arab dictators, their oil (i.e., think alternative energy), and global stability—to support his and their shared yearning to engineer an interfaith approach to solving the world's religious and political conflicts. Mr. Obama sees it as the best possible means toward achieving world peace—the one last ray of hope in Mr. Obama's heart and mind, a hope that matches what an Obama biographer, Stephen Mansfield, described in The Faith of Barack Obama as the "eclectic" multi-faith experience that is based on his upbringing and personal life's journey.15
According to Mansfield, the president's foreign and domestic policy strategies appear irreversibly connected to his pluralistic religious experience—Catholic, Islamic, atheistic, and Pentecostal—and his years of involvement in community and social work. This in turn informs his intellect, his decision-making and communication style, and more specifically his Kumbaya togetherness or collective interfaith approach to foreign policy: the all-too-familiar "let's just get along" appeal.16 This is evidenced by Mr. Obama's Cairo speech emphasizing "A new Beginning":
"I am convinced that in order to move the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' (Applause.) That is what I will try to do today—to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."17
Ideally speaking, this interfaith approach that he hopes will appeal to a new and vibrant generation of young people in the Middle East and around the globe, presumes to bring most people of faith together in the quest for shared democratic and economic values (i.e., world peace).
Within President Obama's overarching argument for a "new beginning" with Islam "is the clear suggestion that Islamic belief and democratic politics are not incompatible." After disavowing Bush's democracy promotion in his June 2009 address at Cairo University, President Obama gave sanction to this sentiment when he said that Bush's approach did not "lessen my commitment. . . to governments that reflect the will of the people," adding that "each nation gives life to the principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people."18 It seems clear that this is Obama's way of trying an untried approach to bridge the chasm in today's "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and the Muslim East.
But this approach is alarming to European Union and NATO leaders, as well as Israel, because of the inevitability that "religious law will. . . undercut democratic reforms and other Western values." Both liberal and conservative foreign policy pragmatists warn that the president's approach "fails to take into consideration the methodological approach many such [Islamist] parties adopt toward gradually transforming secular nations into Islamic states at odds with U.S. [and European] policy goals."19 That is why U.S. Secretary of State Clinton warned in Geneva that if Islamist parties seek to participate in the region's future elections, "political participation must be open to all people across the spectrum who reject violence, uphold equality, and agree to play by the rules of democracy."20 Playing by the rules of democracy, that is the big test. It is a test that has never been met by any Arab Muslim nation in the Middle East.
Finally, President Obama's approach is one that will continue to dog him as he bumps up against the ideal of American exceptionalism in his own country. In the end, Obama's foreign policy approach to the Arab-Muslim world will either end up backfiring against his intended hopes and desires, or, as few believe, a wave of interfaith harmony among Sunni and Shiite Muslims will occur in their seeming quest for democracy and Western democratic values.
1 Ethan Zuckerman, "The First Twitter Revolution?" Foreign Policy (online), Jan. 14, 2011. See also Noureddine Miladi, "Tunisia: A Media Led Evolution?" Aljazeera (online), Jan.17, 2011, in which the author concludes that "new and social media was one of the driving forces that kept the protests alive, giving Tunisians an effective way to coordinate"; and Carrington Malin, "Can We Say Twitter Revolution Now? Can We?" Spot On Public Relations (online), Jan.16, 2011. Finally, see "Internet Democracy: This House Believes That the Internet Is Not Inherently a Force for Democracy" (a discussion between Evgeny Morozov and John Palfrey, and moderated by Mark Johnson), Economist, Feb. 23, 2011.
2 See Evgeny Morozov, "Freedom.gov: Why Washington's Support for Online Democracy Is the Worst Thing Ever to Happen to the Internet," The Foreign Policy, January-February 2011. This is an amazingly revealing article by Mr. Morozov: "The State Department's online democratizing efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued Bush's Freedom Agenda. By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, [Hillary] Clinton's digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism." How? "Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions—vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace."
3 Tom Raum, "Obama Calls for Peaceful Response in Middle East," The Washington Post, Feb.15, 2011. See also the White House transcript.
4 Alan Cowell and Neil MacFarquhar, "Iran Calls for Leaders of Opposition to Be Prosecuted," New York Times, Feb. 15, 2011.
5 See Michael Slackman, "Arab Unrest Propels Iran as Saudi Influence Declines," New York Times, Feb. 23, 2011.
6 Robert F. Worth, "Unrest Encircles Saudis, Stoking Sense of Unease," New York Times, Feb.19, 2011. So is there any difference in Saudi Arabia's case, as compared with Iran's form of government? Yes, but not much. In Saudi Arabia Imams or Muslim religious leaders do not control the government as they do in Iran; secular princes guide by religious law, Sharia law. With the exception of Iraq this is the fundamental administrative difference between Shiite and Sunni-Arab Muslims. See Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).
7 A powerful radical cleric in Yemen by the name of Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani called for an Islamic state to replace the secular government there. He proclaimed, "An Islamic state is coming." Mr. al-Zindani is a revered theological adviser and mentor to Osama bin Laden. See Laura Kasinof, "Cleric Urges Islamic Rule in Yemen," New York Times, Mar. 2, 2011.
8 Tom Raum, "Obama calls for peaceful response in Middle East," The Washington Post, February 15, 2011. See also the White House transcript.
9 See Mark Landler, "Obama Ordered Secret Report on Unrest in Arab World," The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2011.
10 It seems that the media is only now catching on to this realization when Mr. Obama's intentions seemed fairly clear back in 2009 in his first foreign trips to Turkey, and particularly in his "A New Beginning" speech in Cairo. See Landon Thomas, Jr., "In Turkey's Example, Some See a Road Map for Egypt," The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2011.
11 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, (speech transcript of) "Remarks by the President on 'A New Beginning,'" Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt: June 4, 2009, 1:10 p.m. (local). Some prominent liberal journalists are subtley suggesting that Mr. Obama's Cairo speech may have launched this Arab-Muslim revolution in the Middle East. Roger Cohen, for example, says that Obama is finding himself "ensconced on the right side of history." Thomas Friedman argues that the very persona of Barack Obama may be fueling the current Arab revolt: "Americans have never fully appreciated what a radical thing we did—in the eyes of the rest of the world—in electing an African-American with the middle name Hussein as president. I'm convinced that listening to Obama's 2009 Cairo speech—not the words, but the man—were more than a few young Arabs who were saying to themselves: 'Hmmm, let's see. He's young. I'm young. He's dark-skinned. I'm dark-skinned. His middle name is Hussein. My name is Hussein. His grandfather is a Muslim. My grandfather is a Muslim. He is president of the United States. And I'm an unemployed young Arab with no vote and no voice in my future.' I'd put that in my mix of forces fueling these revolts." See Roger Cohen, "Oh, What a Lucky Man," and Thomas L. Friedman, "This Is Just the Start," in The New York Times, Feb. 28 and Mar. 1, 2011. There seems to be an element of truth in their claims.
12 Andy Barr, "Mubarak Praises Obama Speech in Cairo," Politico, June 12, 2009.
13 For a rich discussion on the competitive nature of political power in the Middle East, with its mostly Muslim citizens, I highly recommend Lee Smith's The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
14 See Helen Cooper, Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, "In U.S. Signals to Egypt, Obama Straddled a Rift," The New York Times, Feb. 13, 2011. In the immediate aftermath of Egypt's successful overthrow of the Mubarak regime, these New York Times' analysts ran an article chronicling the anger of President Barack Obama for the mixed messages coming from his special envoy to Egypt, Mr. Wisner, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
15 Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of Barack Obama (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008): xix.
16 Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of Barack Obama (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
18 CBS News published by washingtonpost.com, "Obama Mulls Islam's Post-Revolt Role in Mideast," Mar. 4, 2011.
Author: Gregory W. Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.