Obama, Islam, and European Secularism

June 4, 2009

Its rare that waking up first thing with a caffeine-induced headache can be a good thing, but today, thankfully, I get to spend my drowsy hours pouring over Obama’s latest…  I imagine there will be a good amount of discussion of this in the next few hours/days, but I just thought I’d point out something intriguing going on here at the get go. Early on he throws out this gem:

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

Later on, he expands on this point:

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

And further still:

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

I hadn’t really appreciated how much there is to be gained, from an American perspective, from criticizing the secular bigotry of European (particularly French) approaches to Islam, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Given that much of Obama’s audience’s direct acquaintance with Western religious norms comes via Europe, America’s comparatively rigorous protections for religious expression in the public sphere are likely less well understood than our more obvious Christian culture. Making those protections a central to how we represent ourselves, both on our own and relative to Europe, could play very well in the Middle East, provided its paired with policies that emphasize respect for Islam and a diplomatic recognition that Islam is a rightful part of the Middle East’s political inheritance.  Whether Obama (or anyone, for that matter) can succeed at that broader project, I am doubtful, but its nonetheless an interesting undercurrent to what seemed an overall solid performance.


2 Responses to “Obama, Islam, and European Secularism”

  1. family size said

    I think the whole thing is a little fishy. Is there a subtext that Obama is giving a little “don’t worry we’re down with your subjugation of women” thing? I think I may be a little paranoid and irate since I was just reading about the Shiite marriage law.

    • H.C. Johns said

      Could be… I think the core here is that he sees the exterior expressions of islam (here represented by the hijab) as being secondary to basic questions like education, which underlie whatever success femenist reforms can have at a grassroots level.

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