THE SPINE FEBRUARY 17, 2010
I have to admit that Barack Obama's last speech to the Muslim world—by telewhatever to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar—did contain one subtle reproach to the umma after a year of fawning. And it was an important one although it was only three words: “including their daughters.” The president was ever so gently urging Muslims to include girls and women in the pursuit of knowledge which he right called “the currency of the 21st century.” It is, of course, more than that. But give him his due.
After all, the last times he mentioned women as a special category in Islam it was to defend the veil and its range of varieties as a civil liberty when, in the contest between civilization and darkness, it is truly one of the cruelest instruments of repression. In fact, the burqa is one of the ugliest traditions we are fighting in Afghanistan. I’ve written about this before. There is a terrible struggle in Islam precisely about the deportment of females. So why should the president come out in favor of the past? Marnia Lazreg, a sociologist at Hunter College, has written an intellectually powerful and emotionally stirring book, Questioning the Veil (Princeton), about precisely this subject.
In his speech, Obama did a recitative of the various enmeshments the U.S. has with Islamic states. They are for the most part truly good works or perfectly anodyne.
One curious fact about this president is that he seems incapable of speaking to Muslims without slyly suggesting he is one of them. (NO, I DON'T MEAN IN ANY WAY TO RAISE THE VULGAR CHARGE BY THE TEA PARTIERS AND EARLIER MANIFESTATIONS OF RIGHT-WING LUNACY INCLUDING THE ACCUSATION THAT OBAMA IS NOT A NATIVE CITIZEN OF THE U.S.) This is not the first time I've written this. But his pretensions do gnaw at me. Why does the president of the United States resort to such flimflammery? He's already embarrassed himself when he spoke at Ramadan to a Muslim group at the White House by imputing an Islamic tradition, tarawih, to both Shi'a and Sunni when only Sunnis practice it. In a different dimension, in his Cairo address, he basically so bloated up the early relations between Morocco and America that his version amounted to a virtual falsehood. Never mind.
I suppose the most annoying part of his remarks to Doha is that he still thinks his speech to the university in Cairo was historic. Look around, dear reader, it is not... and never was. If he still thinks that it is there are more embarrassments on its way.
Obama had a special and apt message to the assemblage in Qatar. He had designated a trusted member of his White House legal staff, Rashad Hussain, as "special envoy"—yes, yet another special envoy—to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has 55 real states in it plus the "state of Palestine." Inshallah.
My guess is that this is a demotion for poor Mr. Hussain. Presumably, in the White House, he did real work. Working with the O.I.C., whatever it really is or does, won't be much. A smart man—which from all the evidence he is—(or woman, which would have been at least an important symbol) shouldn't be posted to an organization that cobbles rhetoric together. A streaming message on the web site of the O.I.C. today announces Sudan—also a government!—has announced that a meeting of the entire body on food security has been cancelled indefinitely.
So, more on Mr. Hussain. In announcing his appointment, Obama again chose recherché speech. Or, to be more precise, a word he did not know. Hussain is a hafiz of the Koran—he’s memorized it all—and, as such, “he is a respected member of the Muslim community.” I can’t believe that Obama knew what hafiz meant. It may just be another one of his affectations. And as for a hafiz, I'd bet that many schoolboys who attended madrassas, which are mostly centers of ignorance like many ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, also have memorized the holy text and that says nothing about the respect in which the community holds them and certainly says nothing at all about their wisdom.