June 11, 2009
In the Shade of Napoleon and Malcolm X: Making Sense of Obama’s “New Beginning” in Cairo
— Omer M. Mozaffar
When Napoleon's forces arrived in Egypt in 1798 speaking of liberty, equality, and fraternity, many Muslims wondered if Napoleon had become a Muslim. Nevertheless, that moment - Napoleon's military and administrative conquest - marked the beginning of an era in which the Muslim communities of the world were declining: the Ottomans began their long descent; the Mughals witnessed the rise of British Colonialism; the Safavids in Iran had met their demise. Muslim empires gave way to a European Colonization engulfing nearly every Muslim community on the planet.
In the mid-1900s, colonizers gave way to newly independent nation-states, resulting in a realignment of global power. The United States emerged as one of the world's Superpowers. Accessibility to energy resources - especially oil in a few Muslim-majority states - affected international relations. And the American Civil Rights Leader, Malcolm X, broke from the Nation of Islam (based a few blocks away from the current Obama residence in Chicago) and made pilgrimage to Mecca, discovering the humanity of peoples of all races and ethnicities. His travels included meetings with leaders of various Muslim states and communities, in which he demanded justice for all oppressed peoples, beginning with his own.
Thus we reach 2009 and witness a "new beginning." Immersed in multiple wars, treading through a fragile economy, America might be witnessing its own era of decline. We face a democratization of violence, where a few individuals can cause catastrophic damage, compelling another realignment of power. As an already-unique president inheriting this complex scenario, Obama is heir to the legacies of both Napoleon and Malcolm X. In Cairo, he is the President of the United States - occupier of nations, devourer of the world's resources - acknowledging a past of imposition, making promises of a future of civility and dignity. He is also an African American, a Christian descendant of Muslims, calling on the world to embrace the rich legacies in our intertwined histories, enjoining us to embrace the common humanity of our local and global neighbors. Is Obama taking on the role of Napoleon or of Malcolm X?
In announcing the War on Terror, George W. Bush himself commented that this war is not a war on Islam. Likewise, in his visit to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Tony Blair spoke of respect for civilizations. In each of these events, heads of state spoke of building bridges. Prior to 9/11, Bush reached out to the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, and appointed an Arab into his original Cabinet. Still, Bush and Blair are consistently remembered by many Muslims with disgust. The differences between Obama's speech and those of Bush and Blair are significant. Obama's speech illustrates a rhetorical shift, through which he reaches out to Muslims in resonant ways.
In his Cairo speech, Obama illustrated deep familiarity with Islam and Muslims. After winning applause with his offering of the Islamic greeting, “Assalamu Alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”), he cited one of the foundational calls of the Qur’an – the call to Taqwa (God-consciousness) – in his first citation, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” Muslims are very familiar with that particular passage (from Surah 33:70), reciting it, among other places, in nearly every wedding. Obama further illustrated his respectful familiarity, with mention of his own experiences in Indonesia and Chicago and his listing of scientific, artistic, and social accomplishments in Muslim history. He referenced the importance of Muslims in American history, listing examples such as Malcolm X, Fazlur Khan (the designer of the Sears Tower), Muhammad Ali, and Congressman Keith Ellison. Obama even mentioned the story of Muhammad’s Night Journey (the Isra), during which the Prophet met Moses and Jesus, among others. While his predecessors offered a few pleasantries, this President gave precise, detailed paragraphs. He speaks of Islam with such respect and conviction that even Muslims often wonder if he is really a Muslim.
Throughout his speech, in which he stated that he will “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” Obama emphasized a complex interconnectedness of peoples, which transcends all previous lines of separation. In making this point he referred twice – once indirectly and once directly – to another very popular passage from the Qur’an (Surah 49:13), mentioning that humanity was created in nations and tribes in order to develop mutual familiarity. Despite the rapid expansion of lines of communications, the last decades witnessed an increasing polarization in the world. Obama, however, spoke as a representative of today’s deeply interconnected world, in words that resonated particularly with his Muslim audience, managing to convince many that this accelerating polarization can – with mutual effort – end. So is Obama taking the role of Napoleon in Egypt, or Malcolm X? Or perhaps he is Nixon in China? The answer will come as he sets about fulfilling his many promises.
Omer M. Mozaffar is an instructor in the Asian Classics Curriculum in the Graham School of the University of Chicago.