Barack Obama’s perspective on Islam is mistaken

One of the most surprising aspects of the Obama doctrine is the president's attitude towards Islam, writes HA Hellyer

The Obama Doctrine, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg described it, is an interesting insight into the American president as he approaches the end of his tenure. There have been a number of dissections of the interview, but one topic that was raised and gave an unexpected perspective was that of Mr Obama's outlook on Islam

Certainly, Mr Obama has said tremendously important things about Muslims and the need to recognise their contribution to the United States, as well as their right to declare themselves as American as anyone else. It’s when it comes to Islam, however, that Mr Obama seems to have been rather unexpected.

Mr Obama says the right things about what radical Islamism is. “It is very clear what I mean,” he says, “which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction ... within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”

But it’s not what Mr Obama says about radical Islam that ought to grab anyone’s attention. It’s what he says about Islam that may take some people by surprise: “There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.”

Goldberg goes on to say that “in private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.”

There is an argument being made here that goes far beyond radical Islamism.

Mr Obama is linking the ending of radical Islamism to something akin to an “Islamic reformation”. That’s something quite serious. Mr Obama is claiming that there is something not quite right in Islam – and that radical Islamism will continue unless Islam “reconciles itself to modernity”.

That’s not a unique argument, to be fair. Many on the right-wing of American politics have made much the same statement, but what is surprising is that Mr Obama, previously perceived as quite progressive on the issue, is making that argument. But perhaps he doesn’t quite mean it in the same fashion. After all, there are many Muslims who would say Islam ought to engage better with modernity.

But looking at the rest of the interview, there are odd signs of what that “reconciliation” with modernity looks like in Mr Obama’s worldview.

On the one hand, Mr Obama says that purist Salafism is probably not a particularly wonderful development for mainstream Sunnism – and in that regard, many Muslim religious authorities would agree.

Since the purist Salafism of Ibn Abdul Wahab emerged in the 18th century in what is now Saudi Arabia, there have been huge tensions within the mainstream of Sunni Muslim thought.

If the massive violence that accompanied the Christian Reformation wasn’t enough to cause pause for calls for an Islamic reformation, the irony of Mr Obama’s argument is that purist Salafism was a reformation project.

Yet, in a move that perhaps makes this even more complicated, Mr Obama seems to mistake certain signs of Muslim practice for, indeed, purist Salafism, such as the wearing of the hijab, or the female headscarf. As Goldberg writes: “Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.”

That kind of assessment would be a mistake, because almost universally, Muslims view the headscarf as a religious commitment for Muslim women. That doesn’t mean that every Muslim woman, practising or otherwise, wears it – but the wearing of it can’t necessarily be conflated with purist Salafism.

If that is the Islamic reformation that Mr Obama is looking for, where the hijab is confused with purist Salafism, he’s not likely to find that many takers among Muslim communities.

It’s a crucial point that Mr Obama is making when it comes to the relationship between Islam and radical Islamism – and the issues that Islam itself has. There are challenges facing Islam in the modern age – and much of that has to do with the declining standards of education within Muslim institutions of learning and a crisis of religious authority among Muslims in general. Addressing these two issues are among the critical reforms that Muslims ought to carry out.

But Mr Obama’s analysis – and the assumptions that underpin it – needs a fair amount of adjustment.

Calls for reforms in Islam are easy to issue – but that’s what led to purist Salafism, and radical Islamism, to emerge in the first place. And associating normative Muslim practices with marginal interpretations of Islam is probably not the best place to start either. Mr Obama deserves a lot of credit for helping to mainstream Muslims in American life – but with such arguments, he’s likely to also place a rather awkward ceiling on going any further into the mainstream.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

H A Hellyer

H A Hellyer

Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University