During a presentation hosted by the Asia Program and the Middle East Project on December 7, Wilson Center Japan Scholar Satoshi Ikeuchi explored principles and philosophies in the Obama administration's discourse on Islam. He examined public speeches and remarks by Obama and officials in the administration to assess the administration's deliberate efforts in engaging Muslim nations. He focused on Obama's attention to the power of speech, offered a case study outlining the similarities of the presidents' discourse to policy proposals in the Islamic world itself, and discussed some of the administration's setbacks.

Ikeuchi noted that in the first months of his presidency, Obama was particularly proactive in reaching out to Muslim nations. He scheduled his first television interview with al-Arabiya, an Arabic broadcaster. The president's video message to the Iranian and important speeches in Cairo and before the Turkish national assembly were also intended as grand gestures to convince Muslims that the United States understood their concerns. Obama has also emphasized his role as a communicator between the Islamic world and the West, and stressed that the "the language we use" in defining respective roles "matters." Moreover, Obama carefully warned people in both the Islamic and western worlds against using negative stereotypes to define each other. Ikeuchi also judged that by presenting the western world as diverse, the president was attempting to distance the United States from hard-line rhetoric present in some European nations towards the Islamic world.

Despite Obama's grand attempts at winning Muslim hearts and minds, Ikeuchi compared the president's statements about the need to avoid stereotyping Islamic societies and thought with moves by predominantly Muslim nations to forge an international consensus placing religion above reproach. Ikeuchi noted that while the several declarations of "Islamic human rights" issued by predominantly Muslim nations contained freedom of speech provisions, they contradicted themselves by strictly prohibiting criticism of Islam. Ikeuchi voiced concern about a move by such nations to introduce "sanctity of religion" clauses into United Nations resolutions. He noted that Obama should be careful not to convey the message that his administration supports suppressing the right to criticize religion when he talks about discouraging the use of negative stereotypes.

Meanwhile, there have already been setbacks in the Obama administration's approaches towards the Middle East. Obama's "audacious overture in public diplomacy" may be characteristic of a belief that, rather than a means, discourse is an end in itself. Ikeuchi asserted that in a number of areas, the Obama administration has not backed its strong rhetoric with corresponding action. For example, strong words on Israeli settlements on the West Bank have not been followed up with concrete policy. Negotiations with Iran have proved as difficult as under the previous administration, despite Washington's change in tone. Ikeuchi also noted that aside from a few key officials, Obama's Middle East appointments were relatively junior staff with little experience in the region.

He concluded that while Obama is still popular in Muslim nations due to the vision he laid out in the earlier part of his term, it is now probably "the starting point for a less conspicuous Middle East diplomacy."

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program