Obama versus Muslim conspiracy theories
His major speech in Cairo is directed at an audience that often blames difficulties on America and Israel. A bold move might help regain trust.
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The second is to pin blame on unfaithful adherents. Radical Islamists argue that if true Muslims are granted great power, then contemporary believers must be Muslims in name alone. Only by returning to the pure faith, which they interpret wildly into a totalitarian ideology, will the practical problems disappear.Skip to next paragraph
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The third solution – compatible with the first two, and the easiest one to adopt – is conspiracy theories. If Muslims are the preeminent community and deserve great success, evil forces must be suppressing them. Muslims will rise again, the argument goes, once they purge themselves of these shadowy foes.
Westerners often perceive Islam as a millenarian cult, while in fact it's a rather practical religion. Social failure is so hard for many Muslims to swallow because Islam guarantees prosperity and justice. Conspiracy theories rationalize this failure by placing the blame apart from Muslims themselves and safeguarding the necessary connection between Islam and earthly success. Coupled with the real threats outsiders have posed, the theories seem reasonable to many Muslims.
This worldview, importantly, is not unique to radical Islamists. I spent a year studying the Muslim community of Mauritius, an island-nation in the Indian Ocean. I spoke to many liberal Muslims there, people who worked to create Mauritius's effective and inspiring multicultural democracy. They often introduced conspiracy theories to explain away perceived Muslim failings.
All of this makes it difficult for Obama to speak directly to Muslims without them twisting his words and motivations into an American plot to destroy or at least dampen their communities and faith.
Success in the war on terror – the day when radical Islamism has no access to significant power – requires mainstream Muslims to combat that ideology aggressively. But that won't happen until they perceive US foreign policy to be less threatening than radical Islamism. The problem, however, is not entirely one of perception and psychology, because American foreign policy has, in fact, buttressed corrupt leaders and waged numerous wars (just and unjust) in the Muslim world.
Obama's diplomatic goals for the Muslim street ought to be humble and long term. He should strive to make it more difficult and less reasonable, from the Muslim perspective, to blame their difficulties on America (and Israel). His message will neither escape nor break the conspiracy filter. Yet some headway on both fronts is possible. This requires altering policies and rhetoric – without sacrificing American security.
On the policy front, he is constrained by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but when he reiterates to Muslims on June 4 that America is not opposed to Islam, he ought to back that up with something real. One bold step would be a pledge of US funding for many poor Muslims to go on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, one of their religious obligations. This would astonish the Muslim world.
Such proposals might enable Muslims to trust America a bit more, and begin to realize that their problem is endemic corruption and lack of education, rather than America or the Jews.
This process of gaining Muslims' trust will be exceedingly difficult, in large part because conspiracy theories are in the Muslim cultural DNA. Nevertheless, American security demands that we court mainstream Muslims successfully, so they can feel secure enough to begin the process of dismantling radical Islamism.