Obama’s Inaugural Address, Modernity, and the Middle East

January 21, 2009

During the recent presidential campaign, public commentators and supporters of President Barack Obama contended that his election would introduce a new era of relations with the peoples of the Middle East. With his “global man” image, pragmatic policy proposals, and, most importantly, his general lack of resemblance to George W. Bush, he will supposedly win a substantial number of hearts and minds in the region. These positives, though, are undercut by his interpretation of modernity that falsely synonymizes modernity and Westernization.

For many in the West, modernity is understood as both a Western product and possession. Since modernity and its ideals are perceived as Western, so-called “backwards” nations must Westernize to become modern. Conversely, this assertion implies that non-Western states are unmodern and incapable of formulating indigenous responses to modernity. Scholars like Reinhardt Schulze disagree with this hegemonic interpretation and cogently demonstrate that modernity is a global phenomenon separate from its regional origins. Every nation, he argues, is affected by modernity and attempts to formulate an indigenous response through competing public political discourses. Moreover, indigenous responses to modernity, once made concrete, are responsive to the values of a society – therefore producing more stable states. Modernity, in other words, is universal in effect and particular in consequence.

The paragraph of Obama’s inaugural address focusing on the Middle East, however, echoed the dominant interpretation of modernity. On the surface, the president’s proclamation to the Muslim world is bold and progressive but, upon deconstruction, subtle and damning contradictions are exposed. Obama initially reached out to the Muslim world, announcing that the United States “seek[s] a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Yet, he followed this statement by implying that the path to modernity for ostensibly resistant nations requires the acceptance of Western values. Thus, he divides the world in “the West” and “the rest.” For Obama and his administration, the ideas of modernity are clearly equated with the Westernization of non-West nations. Rather than ushering in an era of “mutual interest and mutual respect” between the United States and the peoples of the Middle East, the president’s approach will maintain the current contentious relationship because it promotes the imposition of Westernization by anti-democratic leaders. Any popularly and indigenously-formulated response to modernity by “the rest” are dismissed because of their failure to accept and implement the West’s model.

In ignorance of the dynamics between modernity and good governance, he equates Westernization with participatory governance. He announced: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As noted above, however, the West-centric interpretation of modernity requires that official institutions exist to suppress indigenous (i.e. backward) responses to the forces of modernity and implement Westernizing policies. For the inhabitants of the contemporary Middle East, the United States’ support for exclusive and corrupt governments competes with its unqualified support for Israel as the primary socio-political flashpoint. If an Obama administration actually seeks democratization and the rectification of its image in the region, they must fundamentally alter the way in which modernity is viewed.

The issue of modernity is complex, and the way in which it is perceived can have profound implications on the policies pursue by policymakers. The West’s imperial conception of modernity has resulted in political intervention and interference, the subjugation and radicalization of individuals, and has ultimately jeopardized the safety of those living in the West. If modernity is instead perceived as simultaneously universal and particular, the security of the West will be enhanced while the desire for modernity of people outside the Western world will be fulfilled.

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