An Open Letter to the President

March 10, 2009

Dear President Obama

Since the inauguration, your administration has repeatedly announced that you will be addressing the Islamic world from a Middle East capital within your first 100 days in office. While your supporters have endlessly praised this decision as prudent and respectful attempt at dialogue, I believe it is an ill-conceived decision. The speech will not, as many hope, help the United States rebuild its image in the region. Forgive my presumptuousness, but I base the following suppositions on the comments directed to the region in your inaugural address.

In the upcoming speech, I anticipate that you will speak to the political ‘moderates’ of the Middle East, asking them to stand with the United States against the fundamentalists bent on embroiling the region in conflict. I also assume that you will give lip service to the United States’ dedication to regional democratization, peace, and economic progress. While these goals are noble on the surface, the modernist discourse underpinning them bares their imperiousness and, consequently, undermines your aims.

In the West, the discourse of modernity rests on the belief that the non-West has existed on the periphery of the progress of the West. As scholar Tim Mitchell argues, modernity exists in a spatial and temporal relationship to the West. In the context, modernity geographically emanates from the Europe and the United States. The history of the non-West also derives its significance from its relationship to the West. To achieve modernity, then, the West requires the non-West must mimic and actualize Western values and its institutions.

Surely, the West-centric assumptions of the address will not be lost on the inhabitants of the Middle East. In fact, this approach throughout the decades has ignited the ire that you now seek to quell. The address will restate one of the primary justifications for European imperialism, that is the so-called white man’s burden. You seek to drag the people of the region from their seemingly stagnant, if not regressive, cultural, economic, and political relations and introduce them to the West’s definition of modernity. Yet, you do not comprehend that that modernity is a universally affective and objective set of ideas that illicit individuated socio-cultural responses.

The strong political public has long existed in the Middle East, and its liberation from the authoritarian regimes that the United States currently supports will be more beneficial to the image of the United States than your ill-advised but well-intentioned address. Through unimpeded public deliberation, the peoples of the region will be able to formulate a stable and culturally-responsive reaction to modernity. The people of the region yearn for democracy, but on their own terms. When the present governments in the region fall – and they eventually will – Islamist governments will fill the void. But, then again, any truly democratic government in the Middle East will take this form.

Islamist democracies are to be embraced, not feared, for two reasons. First, they are likely to be moderate governments for a myriad of reasons. Second, possibilities for cooperation or conflict between an ego (the United States) and an alter (Islamist democracies) is based upon their previous interactions. A conciliatory orientation by the United States toward these populist movements in the present will build and secure mutual amity and cooperation in the future. Despite the arguments of many in the policy establishment, politics is not just a zero-sum game.

Mr. President, I urge you to rethink your address to the Middle East. While many on the American left will favorably compare your address to John F. Kennedy’s historic 1963 Berlin Speech, the response from the region will certainly be sour. I agree that the United States must act to improve its image in the Islamic world, but the likely undertones of a West-centric modernist discourse in the address will undermine its primary objective.

With respect and honest intentions,

politics & metapolitics


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