High Words, Low Realities

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“Among some Muslims,” Obama declared in Cairo, “there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld … Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.” This came at the end of a week in which the Israeli Knesset voted by a large majority (47 to 34) for a law that threatens imprisonment for anyone who dares to deny that Israel is a Jewish state.

The private member’s bill, proposed by MK Zevulun Orlev of the “Jewish Home” party, stipulates one year in prison to anyone who publishes “a call that negates the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.” “One can foresee the next steps,” wrote Uri Avnery, peace activist and former Knesset member. “A million and a half Arab citizens cannot be expected to recognize Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State. They want it to be ‘a state of all its citizens’—Jews, Arabs and others. They also claim with reason that Israel discriminates against them, and therefore is not really democratic. And, in addition, there are also Jews who do not want Israel to be defined as a Jewish State in which non-Jews have the status, at best, of tolerated outsiders.”

The bill now goes to the Legal Committee of the Knesset. Avnery says that within a few weeks or months it will be the law of the land.

The bill, as Avnery notes, does not single out Arabs explicitly—”even if this is its clear intention, and all those who voted for it understood this. It also prohibits Jews from advocating a change in the state’s definition, or the creation of a bi-national state in all of historic Palestine or spreading any other such unconventional ideas.” Avnery concludes, “One can only imagine what would happen in the US if a senator proposed a law to imprison anyone who suggests an amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.”

There are fine words. There are facts on the ground, and they often strayed far from one another in Obama’s big speech. One 1,000-pound bomb or remote-controlled drone trumps 10,000 words on rhetoric about peace.

As they drafted his speech to the Muslim world, President Obama’s speechwriters strove to suggest that cordiality towards Islam is soundly embedded in America’s cultural history. The first Muslim congressman, Obama confided to his vast audience across the Muslim world, was sworn into the House of Representatives with his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran.

No names were mentioned, but this would have been Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Democrat elected in 2006. At his victory-night rally, the local crowd shouted “Allahu Akhbar!” During the race, Ellison understandably downplayed past associations with the Nation of Islam.

Obama also reminded the world that Morocco had been the first nation to recognize the infant United States, signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, which declared in its preamble that the United States had no quarrel with the Muslim religion and was in no sense a Christian country. The second U.S. president, John Adams, said that America had no quarrel with Islam.

It’s a stretch. As my father, Claud, famously wrote, never believe anything till it is officially denied. Adams and Jefferson both saw it as a vital matter of national security to settle accounts with the Muslim world, as represented by the Barbary states.

America needed free access to the Mediterranean and the Barbary “pirates” controlled the sea lanes and, furthermore, supposedly had some Christian slaves, all no doubt using the opportunity of captivity to imbibe the first principles of algebra, whose invention Obama took the opportunity in Cairo correctly to lay at the feet of the mathematicians of Islam, though ancient India deserves some credit, too, or at least the Chinese thought so. He also credited Islam with the invention of printing and navigation, which should surely require the Chinese People’s Republic to withdraw its ambassador in Washington, D.C., in formal diplomatic protest.

An early version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo:

In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d,
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

In 1814, Key rehabbed this doggerel into the “Star-Spangled Banner.” So America’s national anthem began as a triumphal jeer against Islam. And of course every member of the U.S. Marine Corps regularly bellows out the USMC anthem, beginning “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

This is not to detract from Obama’s laudable efforts to rewrite history into a parable of tolerance and mutual respect. And some of the history Obama did get right. He’s surely the first president to state before several million people that the United States did play a role in overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. But his address signals the problem with presidential speeches professing moral purpose of the purest ichor. The higher the phrases soar, the more people start reminding themselves of the facts on the ground.


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