Days after jihadi gunmen slaughtered 11 staffers of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a policeman on January 7, hundreds of thousands of French people marched in solidarity against Islamic radicalism. Forty-four world leaders joined them, but not President Barack Obama. Neither did his attorney general at the time, Eric Holder, or Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, both of whom were in Paris that day. Other terrorists went on to murder four French Jews in a kosher market that they deliberately targeted. Yet Obama described the killers as “vicious zealots who … randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli.”
Pressed about the absence of a high-ranking American official at the Paris march, the White House responded by convening a long-delayed convention on “countering violent extremism.” And when reminded that one of the gunmen boasted that he intended to kill Jews, presidential Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained that the victims died “not because of who they were, but because of where they randomly happened to be.”
Obama’s boycotting of the memorial in Paris, like his refusal to acknowledge the identity of the perpetrators, the victims, or even the location of the market massacre, provides a broad window into his thinking on Islam and the Middle East. Simply put: The president could not participate in a protest against Muslim radicals whose motivations he sees as a distortion, rather than a radical interpretation, of Islam. And if there are no terrorists spurred by Islam, there can be no purposely selected Jewish shop or intended Jewish victims, only a deli and randomly present folks.
Understanding Obama’s worldview was crucial to my job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Right after entering office in June 2009, I devoted months to studying the new president, poring over his speeches, interviews, press releases, and memoirs, and meeting with many of his friends and supporters. The purpose of this self-taught course — Obama 101, I called it — was to get to the point where the president could no longer surprise me. And over the next four years I rarely was, especially on Muslim and Middle Eastern issues.
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama declared in his first inaugural address. The underlying assumption was that America’s previous relations with Muslims were characterized by dissention and contempt. More significant, though, was the president’s use of the term “Muslim world,” a rough translation of the Arabic ummah. A concept developed by classical Islam, ummah refers to a community of believers that transcends borders, cultures, and nationalities. Obama not only believed that such a community existed but that he could address and accommodate it.
The novelty of this approach was surpassed only by Obama’s claim that he, personally, represented the bridge between this Muslim world and the West. Throughout the presidential campaign, he repeatedly referred to his Muslim family members, his earlier ties to Indonesia and the Muslim villages of Kenya, and his Arabic first and middle names. Surveys taken shortly after his election indicated that nearly a quarter of Americans thought their president was a Muslim.
This did not deter him from actively pursuing his bridging role. Reconciling with the Muslim world was the theme of the president’s first television interview — with Dubai’s Al Arabiya — and his first speech abroad. “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam,” he told the Turkish Parliament in April 2009. “America’s relationship with the Muslim community … cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism.… We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith.” But the fullest exposition of Obama’s attitude toward Islam, and his personal role in assuaging its adherents, came three months later in Cairo.
Billed by the White House as “President Obama Speaks to the Muslim World,” the speech was delivered to a hall of carefully selected Egyptian students. But the message was not aimed at them or even at the people of Egypt, but rather at all Muslims. “America and Islam are not exclusive,” the president determined. “[They] share … common principles — principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.” With multiple quotes from the Quran — each enthusiastically applauded — the president praised Islam’s accomplishments and listed colonialism, the Cold War, and modernity among the reasons for friction between Muslims and the West.With multiple quotes from the Quran — each enthusiastically applauded — the president praised Islam’s accomplishments and listed colonialism, the Cold War, and modernity among the reasons for friction between Muslims and the West. “Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims,” he explained, in the only reference to the religious motivation of most terrorists. And he again cited his personal ties with Islam which, he said, “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.”
These pronouncements presaged what was, in fact, a profound recasting of U.S. policy. While reiterating America’s support for Israel’s security, Obama stridently criticized its settlement policy in the West Bank and endorsed the Palestinian claim to statehood. He also recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, upheld the principle of nonproliferation, and rejected former President George W. Bush’s policy of promoting American-style democracy in the Middle East. “No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” he said. “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” In essence, Obama offered a new deal in which the United States would respect popularly chosen Muslim leaders who were authentically rooted in their traditions and willing to engage with the West.
The Cairo speech was revolutionary. In the past, Western leaders had addressed the followers of Islam — Napoleon in invading Egypt in 1798 and Kaiser Wilhelm II while visiting Damascus a century later — but never before had an American president. Indeed, no president had ever spoken to adherents of a world faith, whether Catholics or Buddhists, and in a city they traditionally venerated. More significantly, the Cairo speech, twice as long as his inaugural address, served as the foundational document of Obama’s policy toward Muslims.
Whenever Israeli leaders were perplexed by the administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Syria — severed by Bush after the assassination of Lebanese president Rafik Hariri — or its early outreach to Libya and Iran, I would always refer them to that text. When policymakers back home failed to understand why Obama stood by Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who imprisoned journalists and backed Islamic radicals, or Mohamed Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and briefly its president, I would invariably say: “Go back to the speech.” Erdogan and Morsi were both devout Muslims, democratically elected, and accepting of Obama’s outstretched hand. So, too, was Hassan Rouhani, who became Obama’s partner in seeking a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear dispute.
How did the president arrive at his unique approach to Islam? The question became central to my research for Obama 101. One answer lies in the universities in which he studied and taught — Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago — and where such ideas were long popular. Many of them could be traced to Orientalism, Edward Said’s scathing critique of Middle East studies, and subsequent articles in which he insisted that all scholars of the region be “genuinely engaged and sympathetic … to the Islamic world.” Published in 1978, Orientalism became the single most influential book in American humanities. As a visiting lecturer in the United States starting in the 1980s, I saw how Said’s work influenced not only Middle East studies but became a mainstay of syllabi for courses ranging from French colonial literature to Italian-African history. The notion that Islam was a uniform, universal entity with which the West must peacefully engage became widespread on American campuses and eventually penetrated the policymaking community. One of the primary texts in my Obama 101 course was the 2008 monograph, “Strategic Leadership: Framework for a 21st Century National Security Strategy,” written by foreign-relations experts, many of whom would soon hold senior positions in the new administration. While striving to place its relations with the Middle East on a new basis, the authors advised, America must seek “improved relations with more moderate elements of political Islam” and adapt “a narrative of pride in the achievements of Islam.”
In addition to its academic and international affairs origins, Obama’s attitudes toward Islam clearly stem from his personal interactions with Muslims. These were described in depth in his candid memoir, Dreams from My Father, published 13 years before his election as president. Obama wrote passionately of the Kenyan villages where, after many years of dislocation, he felt most at home and of his childhood experiences in Indonesia. I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.
Yet, tragically perhaps, Obama — and his outreach to the Muslim world — would not be accepted. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the vision of a United States at peace with the Muslim Middle East was supplanted by a patchwork of policies — military intervention in Libya, aerial bombing in Iraq, indifference to Syria, and entanglement with Egypt. Drone strikes, many of them personally approved by the president, killed hundreds of terrorists, but also untold numbers of civilians. Indeed, the killing of a Muslim — Osama bin Laden — rather than reconciling with one, remains one of Obama’s most memorable achievements.
Diplomatically, too, Obama’s outreach to Muslims was largely rebuffed. During his term in office, support for America among the peoples of the Middle East — and especially among Turks and Palestinians — reached an all-time nadir. Back in 2007, President Bush succeeded in convening Israeli and Arab leaders, together with the representatives of some 40 states, at the Annapolis peace conference. In May 2015, Obama had difficulty convincing several Arab leaders to attend a Camp David summit on the Iranian issue. The president who pledged to bring Arabs and Israelis together ultimately did so not through peace, but out of their common anxiety over his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his determination to reach a nuclear accord with Iran.
Only Iran, in fact, still holds out the promise of sustaining Obama’s initial hopes for a fresh start with Muslims. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between [it and] Sunni … Gulf states.” The assumption that a nuclear deal with Iran will render it “a very successful regional power” capable of healing, rather than inflaming, historic schisms remained central to Obama’s thinking. That assumption was scarcely shared by Sunni Muslims, many of whom watched with deep concern at what they perceived as an emerging U.S.-Iranian alliance.
Six years after offering to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” President Obama has seen that hand repeatedly shunned by Muslims. His speeches no longer recall his Muslim family members, and only his detractors now mention his middle name. And yet, to a remarkable extent, his policies remain unchanged. He still argues forcibly for the right of Muslim women to wear — rather than refuse to wear — the veil and insists on calling “violent extremists” those who kill in Islam’s name. “All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam,” he declared in February, using an acronym for the Islamic State. The term “Muslim world” is still part of his vocabulary.
Historians will likely look back at Obama’s policy toward Islam with a combination of curiosity and incredulousness. While some may credit the president for his good intentions, others might fault him for being naïve and detached from a complex and increasingly lethal reality. For the Middle East continues to fracture and pose multiple threats to America and its allies. Even if he succeeds in concluding a nuclear deal with Iran, the expansion of the Islamic State and other jihadi movements will underscore the failure of Obama’s outreach to Muslims. The need to engage them — militarily, culturally, philanthropically, and even theologically — will meanwhile mount. The president’s successor, whether Democrat or Republican, will have to grapple with that reality from the moment she or he enters the White House. The first decision should be to recognize that those who kill in Islam’s name are not mere violent extremists but fanatics driven by a specific religion’s zeal. And their victims are anything but random.