President Obama Passes the Muslim Test
His comments as to democracy, unfortunately, were ambiguous. His reference to groups that eagerly champion democracy while they are out of power but reject it once they obtain it seems to have been directed against Islamist groups, and the common refrain that they believe in "one man, one vote, once." Given that it is often authoritarian governments that are making these claims, it was a bit disappointing to hear Obama endorse this line of reasoning. He was right to criticize Islamist groups for failing to pay sufficient attention to the issue of minority rights, but to demand that political opposition groups embody all the values of a 21st century liberal democrat before they gain recognition only has the effect of entrenching authoritarianism. And while elections do not a perfect democracy make, we know from the U.S. experience that regular elections, over time, against the background of a relatively just constitution, help perfect democracy and the democratic rights of a people. We also know from the Arab experience that the regular absence of elections, on the grounds that the opposition is not sufficiently democratic, entrenches authoritarianism and further warps a country's political culture.
His remarks on Palestine were, without exaggeration, stunning and inspiring. I can only pray that he follows these words with actions. This is the first time that I have heard a U.S. president acknowledge that the plight of the Palestinians is a direct result of the founding of the State of Israel. Many Arabs and Muslims, no doubt, will criticize Obama for not stating with sufficient clarity that Palestinians, and especially Palestinian refugees' claims are founded in justice and not anti-Semitism, but his remarks are sufficient to move the peace process forward. Obama clearly displayed genuine moral empathy for both sides, the true prerequisite for peace. While the Bush administration had paid lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, they approached it almost entirely from an Israeli perspective which simply seeks its own security, and not as a just moral demand that requires resolution. Obama understands it as a just moral claim and publicly endorsed it as such. That counts. And that actually gives me some hope in the future.
Mohammad Fadel, originally from Egypt, is an expert on Islamic law and is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.