THE SPINE DECEMBER 7, 2009
In my last Spine, I had the temerity to question the president's knowledge of the Arabs and the world of Islam. In fact, I had the temerity to question his knowledge vis-à-vis my own. Why don't you be the judge of our wisdoms!
I have to admit that his is quite cheery and assuring. Mine is rather grim. The contrast between us about the Muslim orbit couldn't be sharper. Obama's view of this is almost Panglossian, which is heroic because he is a dumping ground for almost all of the world's bad news. The litany I mustered of this bad news was, after all, culled from only a very few days. And the events alluded to in my reference to Iran have gone on to be even harsher then they previously were: public beatings of peaceful demonstrators, jailings and a mordant commentary on the modernity of contemporary Persian society. Students rallied at universities across the country despite the fact that the regime had waged war against the Internet (described in today's New York Times) by shutting down websites across the board. YouTube and Twitter managed, nonetheless, to muster evidence of the brave young men and women in the streets. And who were their tormentors? The organized mob (yes, really a mob) of security police, the Basij, about which a cover story was published right here in TNR back in 2006.
Obama's benign view of Islam is not a new phenomenon, and I have written about it several times (here, here, and here). Yes, I am riveted by the president's callow take of its role in the world because he must act wisely on what, alas (can anyone deny it anymore?), is a clash of civilizations. I don't think he is, and that is because he doesn't recognize the clash at all.
The president has made that clear. I have carried around in my head, especially in the last days, echoes of his Cairo speech.
But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.
And I also cherish my bar mitzvah gift copy (1952) of Great Jews in Sports.
Malaysia is, of course, an industrial power. But what stuck in my mind was Obama's allusion to Dubai, and I've been carrying around this allusion since June. One thing is for sure: He is not well served by his speechwriters. Who didn't know by then that Dubai was about to collapse? Or, for that matter, rather than being a "Muslim-majority" country, it had a population made up mostly of non-Muslim south Asians and European expats (those who tend and those who are tended to).
By the way, I wonder what kind of progress the president had in mind when he invoked Dubai as an instance of "astonishing progress."
In light of all the other mistakes into which his ghostwriters have led the president, I have sober advice for Obama: Fire them. Your own instincts on these issues are shaky enough. You do not need them dressed up by polished prose for your consideration.
On a slightly different but related point occasioned by the case of the Swiss minarets, which threatened to replace the Swiss watch but no longer, read this morning's very insightful column by Ross Douthat in the Times.