The New York Times

June 10, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Islamís Diversity


HONG KONG — It would be churlish to criticize President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world. It was finely crafted and typically well-delivered. It had the impact that was intended, even if actions to back the words will be difficult.

However, the speech suggested that the Muslim/non-Muslim divide is greater than it actually is. There was an implicit lack of recognition of the sheer diversity of Islam, a religion that like Christianity has shaped, and been shaped by, the societies to which it has attached itself.

That diversity is not primarily reflected in the division between Sunni and Shiite but in the actual practices of the Muslims — almost all Sunni — in South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These non-Arab Muslims constitute by far the largest part of global Muslim community.

Diversity is also not sufficiently recognized by many in the Islamic world. The result is that one orthodoxy is imposed as vigorously as Catholic countries once discriminated against other interpretations of Christianity.

It was said, supposedly by Voltaire, that England had 60 religions but only once sauce, France one religion but innumerable sauces.

The multiple religions were, of course, all branches of Christianity. The issue for society was acceptance of diversity and the separation of church and state. America achieved that with its Constitution, while in France anti-clericalism became a defining political force against the secular claims of the one religion.

Obama recognized that America, despite its pluralism and a Muslim community almost as large as its Jewish one, had much healing to do in its relationship with the Islamic world. He also aimed to push the Middle East peace process by showing even handedness toward Israelis and Palestinians. But those objectives, while they partly overlap, are far from identical. Sympathy for the Palestinian situation is common in developing countries formerly ruled by Europeans.

On the other hand, the farther Muslims are from Jerusalem the less they are emotionally involved in what is more of a struggle between nations than religions.

Indeed, the failure of the Muslim community in the United States to have much influence on Middle East policy is partly a result of the sheer diversity of its origins and interests. Arabs are a minority among American Muslims as in the rest of the Muslim world.

Yet both Arabs and the U.S. — indeed the West more generally — see Islam through the prism of Middle East politics, Al Qaeda and Iraq. That is a natural outcome of recent events but has also played to the Arab sense of being the guardian of Islam. By speaking to the Muslim world from Cairo, Obama may have fortified such perception.

That could be a misfortune. Oil money has added to the influence of narrow Arabian interpretations of Islam even as most social and economic progress in the Muslim world has been found in non-Arab countries — Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, for example. Even Pakistan, for all its troubles, displays a diversity of interpretations of Islam, some with strong liberal and individualistic leanings that helps sustain democratic debate and keep alive the notion that it is a “state for Muslims” not an “Islamic state.”

Acceptance of diversity within Islam, as well as tolerance of Christians and Hindus, is perhaps most marked in Indonesia. There, as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and India, not to mention Bosnia and the Central Asian republics, the social mores of Muslims are often almost identical to those of Christians and nonbelievers.

The problem is often not so much between Muslims and non-Muslims but the efforts of state controlled religion to deny Muslims the diversity of interpretation that should be their birthright. Thus, non-Muslims in Malaysia face only modest obstacles. Even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Christians are free to drink alcohol as well as worship. Yet in both countries Muslims themselves are the ones denied freedom by state religious authorities trampling on centuries of local traditions to impose their orthodoxy.

Obama has a background in two countries where Islam and Christianity co-exist and where politics is mostly not about religious affiliation — Kenya and Indonesia. Perhaps when he has a chance to visit either of them he could emphasize — to his home audience as well as his hosts — the diversity of Islamic traditions and the importance of their separation of church and state as the keystones of the freedom and pluralism that define America’s success.

The battle is not between Islam and others, it is between the open society and its enemies.