The collision between the consequence of Obama’s outreach and most Americans’ expectations isn’t a surprise for some Islam-watchers.
“The White House warmly applauded the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and actively aided the one in Libya, while brushing aside abundant indications that each was powered largely by Islamic supremacists who would deny rights to women,” said Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam and a best-selling author. “By helping pave the way for pro-Sharia regimes in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries, they’ve become women’s worst enemy,” he said.
Clinton is now stepping into this gap, partly because Obama is focused on his 2012 election, and partly because U.S. policymakers need to influence the newly empowered Islamist governments and movements.
On Dec. 14, for example, Clinton subtly challenged Obama’s conciliatory approach to the Islamist parties.
She used a speech at a department-hosted conference on religious freedom to taunt Islamist advocates and governments about the possible weakness of their religious faith. “Everyone one of us who is a religious person knows there are some who may not support or approve of our religion, but is our religion so weak that statements of disapproval cause us to lose our faith?” she said to attendees, which included numerous officials from Islamic countries in the 57-national Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Clinton’s gibe was very different from the conciliatory message Obama offered during his widely praised 2009 speech in Cairo. “For over a thousand years, [the Islamic seminary] Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning… [Religious] tension has been fed by colonialism … and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations,” he declared.
“Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam,” Obama added, without addressing the clashes between Western ideals and the 1,400 year-old tenets of Islam.
The issue of religious freedom has been highlighted by recent riots in Egypt, where local Islamists — who are tacitly aided by government officials — have killed Coptic Christians protesters, kidnapped Coptic girls and burned their churches. There are roughly 8 million Copts in Egypt.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological allies within the more pious Salafi movement are using a three-stage election process to win almost 70 percent of votes from the country’s mostly rural and uneducated populace. This win is far greater than was expected by the State Department or by the New York Times, which predicted the brotherhood would only get 10 percent of the vote.
This underestimation of the Islamist groups’ nascent power was illustrated by Obama’s May 19 statement, where he said “it’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of [Eypt’s] Tahrir Square was an executive for Google. That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street.”
Subsequently, the executive, Wael Ghonim, was physically blocked by brotherhood officials from addressing the crowd in the square, and has since withdrawn from Egyptian politics.
Clinton also challenged Obama’s limited goals in Afghanistan by urging protection for women’s rights. “We will not waver in our requirement that in order to rejoin Afghanistan’s political life, [Taliban] insurgents must not only renounce al-Qaida and violence, they must also pledge to respect the laws and constitution of Afghanistan — including the rights of women,” she said in a Dec. 16 speech in New York.
That’s far more ambitious that Obama’s goal, which Vice President Joe Biden described as getting only the Taliban’s agreement to reject its religious ally, al-Qaida, and to join the Afghan government. “We are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough” to justify a deal with the Taliban, Biden said Dec. 15 interview with the Daily Beast.
“The Taliban per se is not our enemy,” Biden said, even though it is allied with al-Qaida and dedicated to the persecution of women, barring them from education and employment and forcing them to wear cloth covers.