Ralph Peters presented his analysis of Obama’s speech. While there are reasonable grounds on which to take issue with what Obama said, Peters instead resorted to what might be charitably called a rhetorical response. I’ll go through Peters’ remarks and comment on them.
Peters claims that Obama is asserting that there is no terrorism. The basis for this is that ” Obama didn’t mention terrorism a single time in his star-turn speech in Cairo. Only a few “violent extremists” (our own troops?) remain at large.”
Obama has made it clear that he is well aware that there are people who want to kill Americans and that his primary job is to protect America. As such, even if Obama did not mention terrorism in his speech, it hardly follows that he is making the positive assertion that there is no terrorism.
Peters says, “I thought there was still a debate about that, but I guess not. And no regime in the Middle East tortures anybody, ever. Our bad.” He does raise reasonable concerns here, but this is not an effective refuation of Obama. As far as the reasonable concerns go, there is still a debate over the definition of “torture.” This debate, naturally enough, seems to split on ideological lines. Folks on the right still think that either a) it was not torture or b) if it was torture, it was justified to protect America. Those in the center and towards the left tend to suspect that we did torture. Folks on the left seem quite convinced that we did torture. So, there is still a debate possible here. Peters is right that many countries in the Middle East do practice torture-that is why, in fact, the US is reluctant to release some of the Gitmo prisoners to their home nations. However, the fact that these nations practice torture has seems to have no bearing on the morality of our actions. I am not sure what Peters is exactly trying to imply here-perhaps that since they torture, we should not think that what we did was wrong (that would, of course, be a fallacy). Or perhaps he is just taking Obama to task for not calling attention to their human rights violations. If so, I would agree with him-these countries often do far worse things than we have done and need to be called to task for the evil deeds. This does not, however, diminish any misdeeds that we may have commited.
“Behind closed doors with Saudi King Abdullah, our president must’ve mentioned the many hundreds of churches and synagogues that thrived on the Arabian Peninsula during the Prophet’s lifetime. Muslims zealots destroyed them.”
Obama is quite correct that Islam has a long tradition of religious tolerance. The “people of the book” (as Christians and Jews were called) were permitted to practice their faith in Muslim lands. However, Peters is correct to point out that this tolerance faded with time and was, in many cases, replaced with a zelaotry of religious intolerance that matched that practiced in Europe. Perhaps the Crusades had a small role to play in this change. However, Peters is right to be critical of religious intolerance. If we are to tolerate Islam in the West, then the same respect and tolerance must be offered in the Middle East. Fortunately, as Obama pointed out, there is a rich historical precedent to draw on here.
“Just my analysis, based on Obama’s insistence that Islam recognizes “the dignity of all human beings” and that Muslim women must be free to make their own decisions about what to wear. Surely, fashion choices extend to Mecca and Medina, not just Detroit and Paris?”
Peters makes a reasonable point here. Saudi Arabia is a repressive regime, ruled by a monarchy, and not given to extending full rights to women. If it were not for the oil and all that goes along with it (such as the close relation between the Bush family and the Saudi rulers) we would be harshly critical of this state. If we believe in human rights, we have to accept that they extend to all humans-including women in Muslim states.
Islam & America
In a bit of hyperbole, Perters says “Guess the Founding Fathers missed that one. But I’m assured that George Washington turned to his mullah in the dark days at Valley Forge, that Daniel Boone read the Koran around the campfire, and that al Qaeda stood by us at the Alamo.”
Obviously, none of that is true. However, Obama is right to point out the many contrubtions of Islamic thinkers to the world. As a professional philosopher, I owe a great debt to the Muslim (and Jewish) scholars who preserved and commented on the works of Greek philosophers-most especially Plato. We also owe these thinkers a debt for their development of mathmematics and advances in science.
Of course, this is the past of Islam. Sadly, the current state of Islamic scholarship seems to be lacking the greatness of the past. However, this tradition does still remain and it would be far preferable to see many more Islamic thinkers developing new theories of mathematics or optics rather than a new justification for terrorist attacks.
Violence and Civil Rights
Obama’s intent was, it seemed, to persuade people in the Middle East to work towards their goals peacefully. “
In reply, Peters says ” So much for the Civil War and my ancestor, who volunteered to wear Union blue and paid for it with his life. I thought a half-million Americans died fighting to end slavery.”
Peters raises a good point while also making a straw man of Obama’s view. As Peters points out, the peaceful civil rights movement was built upon a foundation laid in blood. Without the civil war, it could be argued, there would have been no civil rights movement-or it would have been decades later. Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau proposed and tried to practice the sort of civil disobedience that was later used by Dr. King. Thoreau believed that his methods could end slavery and the war with Mexico. His methods, obviously enough, did not work. Perhaps it was a personal failure on his part or perhaps it was the lack of mass media. Or perhaps the stage was not properly set for this method.
The straw man is, of course, that Obama was not talking about the civil war. He was talking about the civil rights movement. This movement did succeed and its great successes were based on non-violent means. We have had plenty of blood in the Middle East. Perhaps they have reached a state comparable to the one reached in the United States after the Civil War-a time when peaceful means can work better than killing. In any case, killing people seems to be an undesirable option-it would be better to achieve our goals without slaughter.
In regards to slavery, Peters says “Still, it was brave of our president to highlight slavery’s “lash of the whip” in his speech, since his own ancestors, as Muslims along Africa‘s Swahili Coast, would have been complicit – if not actively engaged – in enslaving their fellow black Africans for Arab masters. ”
Peters is correct-the slave industry in Africa was driven, in large part, by Muslim slavers. Peters’ rhetorical point seems to be that Obama should not criticize America for what the Muslim slavers also did. On one hand, this is fair: the misdeeds of all should be pointed out and not hidden. On the other hand, if Peters is trying to imply that what we did was not really that bad because others did it too, then that is clearly a fallacy. That period of slavery was a terrible part of human history and there was clearly plenty of evil to go around.
Peters says, ” Yes, denying the Holocaust is ‘hateful.’ But let’s get a grip. Palestinians ‘endure . . . daily humiliations.’ Their lot’s “intolerable.” Israel “devastates Palestinian families.”
Obama was critical of Israel, but he was also critical of Arab states. Israel’s actions are devastating to Palestinian families. But, as Obama himself noted, Israel has a right to exist. This situation is complex and often brutal; but Obama gets credit for trying to do what American presidents have been trying to do for decades: trying to do what is right by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yes, he was harsher than most Presidents, but what he said seems to be true. He was also truthful when he spoke out about the wickedness of killing children with rocket attacks and blowing up buses. Let us face the truth: both sides do awful things to each other. To acknowledge this is only to say what is true.
In an amazing bit of hyperbole, Peters writes: “No wonder our president shunned wicked Israel during his trip – sending a clear, if unspoken, message that Jews are now fair game.”
I’m not sure what speech he listened to, but none of that seemed to be in the version I heard. Obama has been clear that Israel is a key US ally. People close to him have very strong ties to Israel. As such, it would be odd indeed for Obama to send such a message. In fact, he condemned attacks on Israel-that bit about the rockets was directed towards Hamas.
Speaking of Hamas, they are the “legitimate, recognized voice of the Palestians.” That is, they won the elections. By our own democratic standards, that makes them legitimate. They might use means we deplore, but we also use violence to achieve our goals. As such, if our government is legitimate despite our use of violence, we seem to be committed to accepting their legitimacy. Obama did, in fact, take them to task for their rocket attacks-which is quite correct. While the use of violence does not seem to destroy legitimacy (if it did, we’d have how many legitimate governments left in the world?), it is better to minimize that violence.
Iran’s Nuclear Power
Peters said, “Our president’s acceptance of “peaceful nuclear power” for Tehran was coded language for “no pre-emptive military action.””
It is interesting how folks on the right can see all these hidden meaninings in things. Peters does have a legitimate concern: if we allow Iran to develop peaceful nuclear power, we make it easier for them to develop nuclear weapons. However, a sovereign nation does seem to have the legal and moral right to develop a peaceful nuclear program. If we accept that we and our allies have such a right, then we have to extend that right to Iran. Of course, we can just set aside talk of rights and simply state that we do not want them to have such capabilities.
There is also the practical matter of a strike against Iran. We are bogged down in two wars already. Starting a third war, especially with China and Russia testing their muscle, would not seem to be a very good idea. Speaking of China and Russia, we have shown that we can live with nuclear armed enemies. While people do try to present Iran as a crazy state, they seem to be no crazier than China, Russia or even the United States. They do back proxies in struggles against us-a trick they might have learned from our battles with the Soviet Union.
Naturally, I would prefer that Iran not have the bomb. However, it might be something we will have to live with. As noted above, we already live with many nuclear armed enemies-even North Korea.
Peters says “Our president’s breakthrough message to the Muslim world was that America overthrew democratic regimes, slavery was our history’s central feature, and we invaded people on a whim – but we’re sorry now.”
Well, that all strikes me as true. There is no shame in admitting our failings; but there would be shame in denying them. As the virtue theorists like Aristotle and Confucius note, the virtuous admit their errors and correct them. The unwise seek to hide their misdeeds behind lies. Of course, it is also wise to make your good deeds evident.
Peters goes on to say, “Yet, the historical facts are that Islam’s remorseless assault on the West lasted for more than one thousand years, its cruel occupation of Christian lands lasted into the 20th century, and the dream of an all-conquering caliphate remains very much with us.”
Yes, Islamic people have done some awful things. So has the West. We could spend hours, days, and weeks listing out all the wrongs we have done each other over the centuries. While that is of great historical interest, focusing only on the wrongs of the past does little to help us now. We need to acknowledge the blood, but if we are to have a better future, we need to escape the tyranny of the past. Hate, blood and death make up much of our mutual past. But, it need not be what defines our future.
Peters final remark is that “Al Qaeda isn’t an aberration. It’s a manifestation.” While Al Qaeda did arise out of this context, I would say that it is no more a manifestation of Islam than the KKK is a manifestation of America (or Christianity). The majority of the average people in the Islamic world are just that-average people. Bringing death to America is not their driving goal. They want to have the same basic things we want: family, stability and a good life. We have seen how groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda strike at Muslims as well as the West. These groups are also enemies of main stream Islam and have shown this by their willingness to murder their fellow Muslims.
If we simply see Al Qaeda as a manifestation of Islam, then the tendency would seem to be to see all of Islam and all Muslims as enemies (or potential enemies). This failure to make distinctions is both a mark of ignorance and dangerous. We need to recognize our enemies, true, but we also need to recognize those who are not our enemy. All Muslims are not our enemies.