During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama pledged to make a fresh start with the Muslim world. He said he would do this by making a major address in the capital of a Muslim country. To this end, the White House recently announced that President Obama will fulfill this campaign pledge by making a speech in June from Cairo. While it is laudable that he is staying true to his word, Obama is making this all-important speech from the wrong country and for the wrong reasons. A major speech made by a U.S. president in Egypt will not only do nothing to improve America's relationship with the Muslim world but will, in fact, be counterproductive. Sadly, the president's proposed trip and speech confirm his administration's misunderstanding of history and of the nature of the dangers confronting our country.
America's problem with the Muslim world does not stem from disrespect for Islam, or from hostility and antagonism toward Muslims. The real issue is America's past and continuing support for corrupt Muslim dictators around the world. It is precisely this policy that has given birth to radical "Muslims" who oppose America around the world. France and the UK have historically fared little better in understanding the motivation of their adversaries. An Obama pilgrimage to Cairo will only serve to reinforce America's perceived image as a supporter of tyrants who subjugate their people.
When President Obama says that he wants to visit a Muslim country to make his speech, he must realize that there is no "Muslim" country in the world. There are countries that call themselves Muslim countries. Inserting the words "Islamic Republic" in front of Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan does not make them Muslim countries. Changing the King of Saudi Arabia's title from "His Majesty" to "the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" does not make the Al-Saud tribe better Muslims or Saudi Arabia a Muslim country. Belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) does not make a country Muslim.
Instead, a Muslim country is a country that follows the ideals set out in the Koran and in the hadith (the life and practices of the Prophet Muhammad). At the heart of Islamic teachings is social and economic justice for all members of society, be they Muslim or non-Muslim; as the Koran says: "Let there be no compunction in religion." For a nation to be considered a Muslim country, certain basic requirements must be met. Leaders should be elected, but not necessarily by Western rules. Corruption should be eradicated. There should be a drive to achieve social and economic justice, with a level playing field where all members of society have the opportunity to reach their potential, with access to education, healthcare, shelter and food. While humans should be rewarded for their work and investment, there should not be extremes of wealth and poverty. The Koran states that if someone suffers in poverty, then someone else must be living in luxury. Killing innocent people is a crime and killing one innocent person is akin to killing all of mankind. The rule of law should be sacred. Are these values held sacred in Egypt or in any so-called "Muslim" country?
The stark reality is that if countries were in fact judged by objective indicators and not simply by what they profess, countries such as Norway, New Zealand and the United States would be deemed much more "Islamic" than countries such as Egypt, a fact that is secretly acknowledged by Muslims the world over.
An Obama speech from Cairo would only give further American support to a "Muslim" dictator, in a country where Muslims have not been allowed to choose their leaders. A country where Muslims are not allowed freedom of speech. A country with abject poverty alongside lavish wealth. Does President Obama truly think that this is Islam?
Instead of making a pilgrimage to Cairo, he should celebrate the lives and contributions of American Muslims in the United States. These are people who came to America to seek a better life than they could have had in their "Muslim" countries of birth. They have a better chance of living their faith here and are productive members of society. Let the "Muslim" world see that Muslims are flourishing in America.
How can Obama bring his message home? He can do it by organizing a convention in the United States to celebrate the lives of ordinary Muslim Americans. Not the rich and the powerful, but Muslims from all walks of life. To show, not with words but with deeds, that Muslims are welcomed, supported and thriving in America, a country dedicated to tolerance toward all religions and built on the premise that every person has the right to pursue happiness.
If President Obama wants to reach the Muslim world he must learn from history. He must disavow the support of dictators and tyrants for short-term gain. He must renew America's commitment to justice for all people, including a just settlement for the Palestinians. This is the way to reach the Muslim world and to reverse course from hostilities between disparate groups who have yet to realize that they are but one.
Hossein Askari is the Iran professor of business and international affairs at the George Washington University. Noureddine Krichene is an economist at the IMF and a former advisor at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.