By Tad Stahnke
Address to the Muslim Word, the Sequel.
That’s the way the White House touted President Obama’s speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, and that’s the way it should be seen. The president’s speech echoed many of the sentiments that made the 2009 Cairo speech important. But when it came to human rights problems-both theirs and ours- President Obama was vague at best and silent at worst. To accomplish his stated goal of beginning to repair the rift between the U.S. and the Muslim world, President Obama will need to be much more specific.
First, the welcome news. The president again stressed that the United States is not at war with Islam. It’s tragic that this needs to be said, but it does, and it cannot be said too often. Just as importantly, the President discussed the common humanity and interconnectedness of America and the Muslim World-interconnectedness that he himself embodies “Indonesia is part of me,” he said, referring to his childhood spent there. This recalled his Cairo speech when he said, “Islam is a part of America.”
The president was especially eloquent in discussing the importance of human rights: “Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty,” he said, in the speech’s most striking line. He continued: “Because there are aspirations that human beings share – the liberty of knowing that your leader is accountable to you, and that you won’t be locked up for disagreeing with them; the opportunity to get an education and to work with dignity; the freedom to practice your faith without fear or restriction.”
He spent a large portion of the speech celebrating Indonesia’s transition to democracy. In four different places, he discussed the country’s religious tolerance. For example, he praised, “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s Constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”
But that’s only half the story. The government of Indonesia recognizes only six religions and discriminates against some minority faiths. For example, the Ahmadiyah- who practice a form of Islam considered heresy by the government-cannot freely worship.
And the Supreme Court recently upheld a blasphemy law that restricts freedom of religion and freedom of expression. These actions weaken Indonesia’s democratic foundations, which President Obama rightfully praised, but which need further improvement.
The president’s refusal to address these problems is part of a pattern: he is eloquent on the importance of human rights and effusive on human rights progress in general but vague on specific human rights challenges. Perhaps the president is reluctant to discuss human rights problems in other countries when the U.S. has human rights problems of its own. But he should address both. Recognizing that promoting human rights is a common challenge shared by all countries is laudable, but it is just an empty slogan if it is not backed up by reference to actual human rights problems in specific places.
He could have discussed Indonesia’s failure to respect religious tolerance and the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Similarly, he could have discussed gross human rights violations committed by Indonesia’s Security Forces and the gross human rights violations committed by the United States in the name of fighting terrorism. But he discussed neither. Human rights problems in the United States and Indonesia are not equivalent, but they are challenges that must be confronted as each country works to uphold and strengthen its democracy. President Obama must openly recognize these challenges if he is to lead in shaping a world that fosters open economies, open societies and open governments.
Respect for America suffers in the Muslim World both when we fail to respect human rights at home and when we support repressive regimes abroad. Far too often, people see the United States as an accomplice in the crimes of their governments. In Egypt-where many people see the relationship between Washington and the repressive Mubarak regime as far too cozy-the favorability rating of United States has, according to Pew, dropped from 27% to 17% in the last year. Consistent American condemnation of Mubarak’s violations would make an impression on Egyptians.
So, too, would an American stand in favor of free and fair elections. Ahead of the parliamentary elections at the end of the month and the presidential election next year, the Mubarak government is preparing to control both the process and the outcome. Human rights activists in Egypt and elsewhere are urging President Obama to call for international election monitors. It’s an ideal opportunity to take a stand for human rights in the Muslim world – and to back up a general point he made in his speech at the UN in September – but so far at least, the President hasn’t taken it.
In short, the standing of the United States among Muslims will not improve unless it leads on human rights, and it cannot lead on human rights unless it leads by example and is willing to speak frankly to its allies about continuing violations in their countries.
The president should keep this in mind for Address to the Muslim World, Part 3.
Tad Stahnke is the Director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First.