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American lessons in (in)tolerance

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Like Roosevelt, "Obama did speak about the importance of religious tolerance"by Joseph Massad

In the last week, officials of the Obama administration have been visiting Egypt and issuing instructions to the new Egyptian president regarding the question of religious tolerance and Egyptian Christians, demanding and insisting that they be included in the new administration in certain capacities or else. This concern of American government officials about Muslim tolerance of Christians, however, is hardly a new concern. 

More than a century ago, in March 1910, while on a visit to British-occupied Egypt, former US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had just left office, addressed Egyptians at the then recently established Egyptian University (later Cairo University) on the question of self-government. He would invoke both Arab culture (in the form of proverbs) and Quranic quotations to drive his message home. Echoing the imperial and racist views of Lord Cromer, the formidable British Consul General of Egypt until 1907, Roosevelt declared in his speech, which was aptly titled “Law and Order in Egypt”:

The training of a nation to fit it successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations. There are foolish empiricists who believe that the granting of a paper constitution, prefaced by some high-sounding declaration, of itself confers the power of self-government upon a people. This is never so. Nobody can “give” a people “self-government”… You know that the Arab proverb runs, “God helps those who help themselves”… With any people the essential quality to show is, not haste in grasping after a power which it is only too easy to misuse, but a slow, steady, resolute development of those substantial qualities, such as the love of justice, the love of fair play, the spirit of self-reliance, of moderation, which alone enable a people to govern themselves… When I was recently in Sudan, I heard a vernacular proverb based on a text in the Koran, which is so apt that, although not an Arabic scholar, I shall attempt to repeat it in Arabic: “Allah ma el saberin, izza sabaru” - God is with the patient if they know how to wait. 

The Egyptian press, university officials and members of the audience were outraged, though Roosevelt’s personal secretary during his trip, Lawrence F Abbott, who introduced the published version of Roosevelt’s speeches begged to differ. He noted in the only footnote to the speech that “this bit of Arabic, admirably pronounced by Mr Roosevelt, surprised and pleased the audience as much as his acquaintance with the life and works of Ibn Batutu [whose actual name is Ibn Battutah] surprised and pleased the sheiks at the Moslem [al-Azhar] University two days before. Both Mr Roosevelt’s use of the Arabic tongue and his application of the proverb were greeted with prolonged applause”. 

American example of tolerance

Roosevelt not only engaged in mobilising a theological dictum to preserve British colonialism and forestall Egyptian independence, but also an American example of tolerance that Muslim countries should follow as a model.

Addressing the issue of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt following the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, a collaborator with the British occupation who was assassinated by an Egyptian nationalist for patriotic non-sectarian reasons, Roosevelt, who wanted to portray the assassination as sectarian in motives, instructed his audience to follow the American example of tolerance:

In my own country we have in the Philippines Moslems as well as Christians. We do not tolerate for one moment any oppression by the one or the other, any discrimination by the Government between them or failure to mete out the same justice to each, treating each man on his worth as a man, and behaving towards him as his conduct demands and deserves.

Presumably, Roosevelt was referring to the ongoing massacre of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos at the hands of the American military at the time of his speech (much of which was committed during his tenure in office), which indeed did not discriminate between them on a religious basis. As both Christian and Muslim Filipinos resisted the American occupation, the American pacification campaign of the Philippines during Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1909), which followed the Spanish American War of 1899-1902, proceeding from 1902 to 1913, would target them both without discrimination.

The most infamous example of the barbaric violence inflicted on Filipino Muslims by American troops was the Moro Crater Massacre of March 1906 when hundreds of Muslims, including scores of women and children, were butchered. US army general Leonard Wood, who led the American troops in their murderous campaign and had been appointed as governor of theMoro province from 1903 to 1906 (he would later become Governor General of the Philippines), urged the extermination of all Filipino Muslims as he considered them fanatical.

After the massacre, Roosevelt sent him a letter: "I congratulate you, and the officers and men of your command upon the brave feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the flag." Clearly, Roosevelt’s teaching Egyptian Muslims a lesson in tolerance was not on account of some anxiety about the intolerance of American imperial or domestic policies in 1910 toward non-White Christians and non-Christians alike, but an expression of imperial hubris and doublespeak. He would later aver to a journalist: “That speech of mine at Cairo was a crackery Jack. You should have seen the Fuzzy Wuzzies’ faces as I told them off. They expected candy, but I gave them the big stick. And they squirmed, Sir; they squirmed.”

Obama's theological justification

A century later, in June 2009, US President Barack Obama addressed not only a local Egyptian audience, but also, and as American officials insisted, the entire “Muslim World” from the same Cairo University at which Roosevelt had spoken. Obama also quoted the Quran, not once but three times, and greeted his audience in Arabic: “assalaamu alaykum”. Like Roosevelt, Obama wanted to provide a theological justification for an American-sponsored policy, namely the imposition of a “peace” between Palestinians and Israelis that preserves Jewish colonialism and occupation at the expense of Palestinian rights. To do so, he spoke of how the “Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the [Quranic] story of Isra [sic], when Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon him) joined in prayer”. In doing so, Obama was clearly stating, in Zionist fashion, that the Jewish colonisers of Palestine are resisted because they are Jewish rather than on account of being colonisers, hence his call for tolerance and ecumenical peace.

Obama also announced several co-operative projects between the United States and Muslim-majority countries, one of which was “a new global effort with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio”. We do not know what Obama might have intimated to administration officials after his speech or to American journalists off the record, and whether he thought his audience were a bunch of “Fuzzy Wuzzies”, but his subsequent actions spoke louder than his words and indeed made many Muslims “squirm”. His polio campaign was the same programme that the CIA would use two years later in May 2011 to stage a fake polio vaccination campaign to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. That the fake campaign, which used a Pakistani doctor for the task, has imperiled the lives of hundreds of thousands of Muslim children in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to a subsequent ban on the vaccinations by the Taliban and the refusal of local Pakistani community leaders to allow doctors in for fear of being CIA agents, has hardly been registered by Muslims as a form of American co-operation. 

Like Roosevelt, Obama did speak about the importance of religious tolerance of Egyptian and Lebanese Christians by their Muslim compatriots, while promising to end institutionalised discrimination against American Muslims in the United States being practiced in earnest since 9/11, and justifying the ongoing murderous American military campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan (he could have added Yemen but he did not), though not in Iraq, as necessary. These were countries where his administration was killing not only non-American Muslims through massive bombings, but also targeting American Muslim citizens for assassination. Obama announced Indonesia as a model of tolerance for the Muslim world: “I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.”

Model of tolerance

In addition to Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also lavished much praise on Indonesia, providing it as a model of tolerance (alongside the United States of course) for Muslim countries to emulate. She declared in 2009 while on a state visit to the country that “if you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia”. In line with Clinton’s showcasing Indonesia, British Prime Minister David Cameron repeated her mantra when he visited in 2012 and in the context of the rise of Islamists in the Arab world amidst the “Arab Spring”. He declared: “What Indonesia shows is that in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, it is possible to reject this extremist threat and prove that democracy and Islam can flourish alongside each other.” Cameron further declared that it was the Islamists (not western liberals) who “believe that democracy and Islam are incompatible”.

Obama had lived in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971, in the wake of the massive US-sponsored massacres of almost one million Indonesians following the US-supported coup of General Suharto. Yet, while Obama remembers well Muslim “tolerance” towards Christians, he seems to remember little of the US-imposed terror and American sponsorship of right-wing Indonesian Muslim groups to kill communists in the wake of the 1965 Suharto coup, an intolerance the US had engineered and called for since the 1950s, and which would expand later to Afghanistan and spill over to right-wing Islamist groups’ intolerance of Christians in places like Egypt (many of whose right-wing sectarian Islamists were recruited by the US for its anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan) to which Obama was now counselling tolerance.

Indeed, it is this same US-induced and supported intolerance that feeds the ongoing sectarian right-wing Islamist attacks on non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq (attacks that are depicted in the US media as an expression not of the US policy of sectarian agitation in Iraq, but on account of the indigenous “parochial” identities of Iraqis, which seem to have been unfortunately released by US-imposed “freedom”) and in Syria as well (in the latter case at least, with the full complicity of the Western press, if not Western governments, where sectarian attacks are being represented as part of the struggle for “democracy”).

The US has continued to be the hegemon over Indonesia for the last 47 years, not only under the murderous regime of Suharto which it helped bring to power in 1965, but also and especially during the post-Suharto “democratic” phase where neoliberal former army generals would be elected to the presidency in accords with US interests. The current President Susilo Bambana Yudhoyono (a retired army general trained in the United States and an accused war criminal for his military role during Indonesia’s US-supported genocidal occupation of East Timor), and his vice-president Boediono (former governor of the Bank of Indonesia and a Wharton School graduate), are the crowning efforts of US policy in the country. With such examples of tolerance, like the United States and Indonesia under US tutelage, Muslim-majority countries indeed have much to learn about tolerance and more so about intolerance.

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.


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