by Raymond Ibrahim
President Barack Obama and I have one thing in common shared by few Americans: we were brought up by at least one parent — biological or step is irrelevant — who was born and raised in an Islamic milieu. Intimately aware of the inevitable effects of this, I must question Obama’s sincerity in his approach to the Islamic world.
While I was born and raised in the U.S., my parents were born and raised in Egypt. Even though they were Christians (Copts), it was only natural that they would adopt an “Islamicate” worldview, that is, a worldview based on Islamic culture and society, though obviously not Islamic dogma. As a result, while I share and appreciate the Western worldview, so too am I intimately acquainted with the Islamic world’s weltanschauung.
This is a worldview typified by cynicism and stoicism: a belief that humanity is intrinsically opportunistic, selfish, and warlike; that might not only makes right, but should; that those in the right do not apologize or appease, but rather assert; a survival-of-the-fittest mentality; and, above all, sheer contempt for perceived weakness and equivocation, or in Islamic parlance, emasculate behavior. Let’s call this a worldview based on “primordial politics.”
Anyone who has spent time in the Islamic world or held sincere conversations with people from there — Muslim or Christian makes no difference — will know this to be true. In short, the worldview of the average person from the Islamic world is the antithesis of the postmodern, “therapeutic” worldview of the liberal West, where “feelings,” “mutual respect,” “toleration,” and the ability to “express oneself” are paramount. This is only natural: people bred in harsh environments (e.g., the vast majority of the Islamic world) are not impressed by soft or sublime words.
It bears repeating that these qualities are not so much due to Islam per se; rather, they have an ancient lineage and have permeated almost every major civilization, including the West (e.g., the “neocons”). It is the postmodern, liberal worldview that is aberrant to human history, that is a dot in a long continuum of realpolitik. Living and dying in the height of our era — human lives are so short — it is easy to overlook the evanescence of this epistemology.
Islamic civilization, on the other hand, whose soul is trapped in the medieval era (thanks primarily to the concept of sunna), is by far the staunchest champion of primordial politics.
Here, then, is the problem: If I and countless other second-generationers are intimately (if not instinctually) conscious of the Islamic worldview by simply having parents from the Islamic world, surely Barack Hussein Obama — who, unlike me, spent a major chunk of his youth in the Islamic world (Indonesia), being raised by a Muslim stepfather — is also aware of the predominance of this worldview. This is especially the case since almost everyone — friend or foe — makes it a point to say that Obama is a very “insightful” man, “in tune” with the rest of the world.
Thus he of all American leaders should know that the sort of idealistic, “feel-good” talk of mutual respect (i.e., appeasement), such as he often gives, while moving to his constituency, will have little effect on the people of the Islamic world — except, perhaps, to breed more contempt for the American “paper tiger,” Osama’s appellation for the U.S. during Clinton’s era. So why does Obama do it? Indeed, why does he do so more than other Western leaders (whose naivety is somewhat justified in that they do not have the insights afforded by his background)?
This reminds one of Islamist tactics. Al-Qaeda, for instance, which is well acquainted with both the Western and Islamic worldviews, has made it a point to speak a “language” that Westerners understand (mutual respect, justice, tolerance, etc.) and another that Muslims understand (jihad, honor, conquest) — both diametrically opposed. The purpose, of course, is to buy the Islamic world time to grow stronger and receive concessions, while lulling the West into thinking that all conflict will end with just a bit more respect and appeasement for Muslims — concepts alien to the Islamic worldview, where respect and appeasement are articulated solely through an Islamic paradigm, i.e., non-Muslims (infidels) get neither.
Obama achieves the same end by doing the opposite: he speaks to Muslims in a language which only Westerners appreciate but which the majority of Muslims scoff at. In both cases — whether the fine platitudes come from Osama or Obama — only Americans are being deceived into thinking peace is a matter of “winning hearts and minds.”
Prior to the election, many hailed Obama’s Muslim roots, his “otherness,” as strategic to endearing the Muslim world to the U.S. In fact, his unique ability to appreciate the Islamic world’s epistemology — his experiences, not his name — was the real bonus. Unfortunately, not only is he not making use of this advantage; he is spearheading the reverse —  apologies, concessions, and soft talk — all which will inevitably promote an even more assertive Muslim response. Yet he of all American presidents should — indeed, does — know better.
Raymond Ibrahim is the associate director of the Middle East Forum and the author of The Al Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.