Analysis by Kay B. Day
President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast set off fireworks in the blogosphere and status quo media. Sunday talk show hosts nattered about the president’s remarks, with pundits focusing largely on his mention of the Crusades and the era of Jim Crow laws in the United States. The speech didn’t just comprise a homily and platitudes.
It was actually power packed, but media managed to miss the starting point for the journey the speech established.
From Obama’s praise for the Dalai Lama to his characterization of ISIL (or ISIS) to the fact “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” there was enough in that roughly 2,000 word address to spark a book.
I made a statement on social media, asserting the president should fire his speechwriter, and I had a number of reasons for making that statement.
Americans are unaware that Obama’s comments are being roundly condemned by some other countries, and missing completely from the address is the significance of the year 2015 and an unacknowledged genocide that has interested me for years.
WELCOME AND A FUSE
After brief greetings, Obama praised the Dalai Lama as “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion…inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.”
China, naturally, was not pleased, but what’s intriguing to me about the Dalai Lama is the fact he has become a pop-culture sort of spiritual icon in a long line of spiritual icons whose own history is replete with bloodshed, murder, and enough intrigue to rank it right up there with Britain’s House of Tudor. Few US media note that, and fewer still have any idea the Dalai Lama is a also a political figure, a symbol of the desire of Tibet to free itself from China’s heavy hand.
Americans see the present Dalai Lama as a romantic figure adored by celebrities and media. The Smithsonian summed it up:
“Tibet in the early nineteenth century was, moreover, far from the holy land of peaceful Buddhist meditation pictured by romantics. Sam von Schaik, the British Museum’s Tibet expert, points out that it was ‘a dangerous and often violent place where travelers carried swords, and later guns, at all times’—a theocracy in which monks and monasteries fought among themselves and where ‘violence might be prolonged for generations by blood feuds in vicious cycles of revenge.’”
When the Dalai Lama spoke in Washington in March, 2014, there was a protest you probably didn’t hear about. The reason given had to do with a ban on the Shugden branch of Buddhism. The Washingtonian reported one protester’s remarks:
“The ban, says [Yangte] Rinpoche, makes life difficult for followers in Tibet, including limiting hospital access…’He’s crazy,’ Rinpoche says while leading a mostly American crowd in chanting, ‘Religious freedom.’”
By the time the president ended his greetings, he acknowledged the criticism he faces as president, and joked about it. Obama is a very smart man. It’s a given he knew exactly the sort of controversy he was about to stir. And we are still talking about it days later, regrettably not in terms of love, religious tolerance, and kindness, but arguing about whose faith killed more and focusing on progressives’ reliable meme—Jim Crow laws. No mention was made of the fact those laws were put in place by the same party brand the president represents.
VERSES AND FAITH JOURNEY
Obama chose the book of Ephesians in the Bible as an example of his faith journey. The passage containing the phrase “with the power through his Spirit” is contained in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about Christianity. Legend has it that the city was the last home of Jesus’ mother Mary:
“As it turns out, Christians are not the only ones who make pilgrimages to Mary’s House. Many Muslims come as well, since they honor Mary as the mother of the prophet Jesus. For this reason, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mary’s House, he said, ‘From here in Ephesus, a city blessed by the presence of Mary Most Holy — who we know is loved and venerated also by Muslims – let us lift up to the Lord a special prayer for peace between peoples.’”
I thought that was a fitting passage for the president to select, considering the geographic link, and I appreciate the words of Benedict XVI as most people of faith would.
FAITH AS A ‘”WEDGE…OR WEAPON”
Midway the president’s speech, his words took on a more political theme. He talked about faith being used “both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.” Obama generalized about violence in Pakistan and Paris, and he characterized ISIL as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.”
That is putting it mildly and it is also highly misleading. ISIL represents a global jihadist effort. I have characterized it as imperialistic because it is, aiming to establish power and authority not only over Muslim lands ISIL wishes to convert to their own ideology, but to others as well. Aaron Y. Zelin, writing for The Washington Institute, explained:
“By now, many have seen the variations of maps that ‘Islamic State’ (IS) activists have posted online showing aspirational future areas of conquest. This genre usually encompasses areas that have been under historical Caliphates shaded in black, including places such as Spain or Greece that do not even have a Muslim plurality of the population today. Ultimately, IS (as well as other Sunni jihadi groups) hopes the entire world comes under its dominion. This is nothing new. But what are IS’s short to medium-term goals and how are they attempting to achieve them?
In short: its slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding).”
IS represents not only a threat to the West and non-Muslim majority countries, it represents a threat to Muslims whose faith is, like Christianity, diverse. As Zelin points out, the “areas it has taken control of are not all contiguous.” This is why countries like Jordan perceive it as a threat and are acting on that assumption. IS is self-funding, through “the spoils of war and criminal enterprises.” Many of the fighters have criminal records, and the group poses a potential threat to the West in more ways than one:
“The Islamic State’s colonial Caliphate project would find the most fertile ground in the Northern Sinai, Eastern Libya, and some of the neighborhoods in poor areas of Western European cities that are Muslim-majority. None of this is inevitable. In fact, the Islamic State would have some serious difficulties in pulling it off, especially in Western Europe. But the jihadi movement has never let feasibility stand in the way of its ambitions. Like many jihadi strategists have proposed in the past, they would hope to set off a backlash that could lead to destabilization and chaos. This is exactly what jihadis thrive off. We have already seen failed attempts in England to establish ‘sharia zones’ by local jihadis like the UK-based Anjem Choudary, who has cautiously spoken out in favor of the Caliphate claim.”
The United Kingdom has grappled with sharia, inheritance laws regarding women in particular. This is not unexpected. When a country permits a faith to inject statutes and policies antithetical to that country’s existing laws, problems are to be expected.
IS has also managed to attract followers from another Sunni group Americans know well—al Qaeda. The goal of a Caliphate, however, will resonate even with Muslims who do not approve of brutality.
Islam at present is, in my opinion, undergoing an internecine theological war based in some part on ancient fractures between Shia and Sunni, but it is also part of a trend that began years ago as a religious sentiment that morphed into a political movement. Bruce Livesey, writing for PBS and citing research by Giles Kepel, explained:
“Salafism is an ideology that posits that Islam has strayed from its origins. The word ‘salaf’ is Arabic for “ancient one” and refers to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Arguing that the faith has become decadent over the centuries, Salafists call for the restoration of authentic Islam as expressed by an adherence to its original teachings and texts. ‘Salafists originally are supposedly not violent,’ Kepel explains. ‘They are not advocating the revolt against one who holds power, against the powers that be. They are calling for re-Islamization at the daily level.’”
As early as 1997 when Bill Clinton was president, Livesey said no one in Washington even knew what Salafism was. In 2005, he wrote about “an alarming change among Europe’s Muslims.” Drawing on the same research by Kepel:, Livesey wrote:
“By the mid-’90s, Kepel saw an alarming change among Europe’s Muslims. Increasingly he was coming across Salafists who had embraced jihad — in other words, who felt violence and terrorism were justified to realize their political objectives. Kepel explains that when Salafists, who tend to be alienated from mainstream European society, meet and mingle with jihadists, it fuses into a volatile mixture. ‘When you’re in the state of such alienation you become easy prey to the jihadi guys who will feed you more savory propaganda than the old propaganda of the Salafists who tell you to pray, fast and who are not taking action…And this is why the [Islamist terrorists] who had been arrested were often good Salafists in the beginning.’”
Kepel labeled these Muslim fundamentalists ‘Salafist jihadists’, a term that he extends to include the followers of Al Qaeda. “Salafist jihadists are now a burgeoning presence in Europe, having attempted more than 30 terrorist attacks among E.U. countries since 2001.”
Livesey said of Salafism and other jihadist movements, “The Muslim Brotherhood is the mother of all these movements, ideologically.” Livesey was quoting Dr. Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born professor of politics and senior fellow at the James A. Baker III Instiute of Public Policy, adding, “Salafist jihadism and the activation of the views of the world of the house of Islam and the house of war are the ideas that emerged from the writings and teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
THE CRUSADES AND JIM CROW
Perhaps because he had mentioned violence at the hands of Muslims, Obama chose to point to “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” as well. Obama used the term “God” for most of his speech, reverting to “Christ” only in this passage and in instances where he quoted another person who used it.
He did what politicians often do, picking at the wound of US slavery.
We currently obsess over that era, despite our country’s in good faith attempts at reparations via redistribution of wealth, welfare, educational grants, funding for community partnerships, and numerous other initiatives most countries, including many on the continent of Africa, have not undertaken. Little is said about slavery in pre-colonial times, and even less is said about the roughly two centuries when white slaves were common in part as a product of Muslim slave raids. These matters are deliberately avoided by most scholars and politicians find them not very useful because the primary reason Americans obsess over slavery is that it is a means of mobilizing bias for a political party.
Regarding slavery practiced across Africa, Dr.Akosua Perbi, Fulbright-Scholar-in-Residence at Manchester College (Indiana), described the widespread practice of it, for both domestic labor and exports:
“From North to South, and from East to West, the African continent became intimately connected with slavery both as one of the principal areas in the world where slavery was common, and also as a major source of slaves for ancient civilization, the medieval world and all the continents of the modern period. The greatest African community in the Diaspora is believed to be in Brazil with a population of about 200 million, followed by the Carribean and the U.S.A.
In North Africa slavery was practiced in the Sahara desert and its southern border lands, as well as in the region of modern western Sahara, Morocco and Algeria among the Berbers. In the Central Sahara and in the sub desert areas further south, the Tuaregs practiced slavery. In North East Africa, the Ethiopians, Somalis, Egyptians and the people of the Sudan were all familiar with the institution of slavery. In West Africa slavery was known among many of the states and societies. For example among the Wolof and Serer of Senegambia, the Mende and Temne of Sierra Leone, the Vai of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and virtually all the states and societies in Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Mali, Nigeria etc. In Central Africa slavery was practiced in much of Bantu Africa for example among the Duala of Cameroon; the Bakongo, Bapende Luba and Lunda of Zaire ( now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Congo and part of Angola, and the Lozi of Zambia. In East Africa the Buganda state, the Nyamwezi and the Chagga peoples practiced slavery. Along the coast, the Mrima Arabs, Omani Arabs and the ASawahilis practiced slavery. In Southern Africa the Cokwe of Angola, the Sena of Mozambique and the Ngoni people scattered across East, Central and Southern Africa were all familiar with the institution of slavery.”
That list, by the way, is incomplete. I deliberately ran the excerpt long.
Black people also owned slaves in the United States, a fact even The Root acknowledged in an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: “[F]ree black people have owned slaves “in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery…’”
As for white slaves, they were abundant, and they numbered in the millions. In 2003 Robert C. Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, wrote a book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan). The university announced the book: “A new study suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 – a far greater number than had ever been estimated before.”
To suppose that all those Muslims were fair-skinned would be delusional. Unfortunately purchases and slaves acquired through conquest were not documented, so we might say “at least” a million and admit that’s quite enough.
I agreed with the president’s notion that humility is imperative in any faith journey—“not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us.”
I’ve often told my children that we are not as special as we think we are. We represent a speck of dust (maybe not even a visible speck) on the long human timeline. Yet in America we have created a victim industry that has been immensely profitable to those who promote it. That industry should be placed into the context of history. Why scholars choose not to and why politicians ignore the history of humankind is something we might debate in future.
Under Sharia law, slavery is permissible although it is not practiced widely, according to most accounts which we cannot truly verify, in countries where the Koran is the Constitution.
By now many will have read diatribes about Obama’s mention of the Crusades. Anyone familiar with ancient history knows how brutal battles were when man had a far more primitive view towards resources and wealth. Bear in mind Obama is not the first president to trip up on ancient history related to the Crusades—Clinton and President George W. Bush did as well. It would be smart of any presidential speechwriter to do a bit of research—not leftwing populist research, because there are many medieval scholars in this disciplinary area.
Thomas F. Madden, Director of Saint Louis University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, wrote about it after Bush 43 slipped up in 2005, and after Clinton had tripped before that. Both slips are a matter of record—apparently Obama’s speechwriter provided no caution.
“Many historians had been trying to set the record straight on the Crusades long before Clinton discovered them. They are not revisionists, like the American historians who manufactured the Enola Gay exhibit, but mainstream scholars offering the fruit of several decades of very careful, very serious scholarship. For them, this is a ‘teaching moment,’ an opportunity to explain the Crusades while people are actually listening. It won’t last long, so here goes.”
And Madden wrote this:
“[M]uch can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.
Christians in the eleventh century were not paranoid fanatics. Muslims really were gunning for them. While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion—has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered. When Mohammed was waging war against Mecca in the seventh century, Christianity was the dominant religion of power and wealth. As the faith of the Roman Empire, it spanned the entire Mediterranean, including the Middle East, where it was born. The Christian world, therefore, was a prime target for the earliest caliphs, and it would remain so for Muslim leaders for the next thousand years.”
Madden said scholars continue to study this period of time, but if a president decides to pluck a historical event whose seeds were planted more than a millennium ago, it’d be a great idea to proceed with caution unless you aim to stir controversy.
It’s also important to note something else. Christians consider Christ the Prince of Peace. He never wielded a sword. Muhammad did—he is almost always described on Islamic sites as a businessman, warrior, and prophet. Many Muslims in ancient times converted from Christianity in order to obtain equal status with Muslims who could be tolerant of other faiths, but exacted more taxes and assigned less rights to their non-Muslim brethren.
As an American whose country has a target on her back, I am interested in hearing what we are to do now about the rising Islamist threat. Most Muslims do not participate, but enough do that we must assign the religious factor that exists. To ignore it is to ignore a fuller debate about differences between countries where the Koran serves as either foundation for or outright blueprint for the constitution or laws.
The US Bill of Rights, specifically the 1st Amendment, is fully at odds with laws in every single Muslim country and in many European countries. That will produce domestic conflicts within the U.S. in the future and there is an ongoing global attempt to increase government power over speech in my country. That attempt should be obstructed by people from both sides of the aisle because millions died along a long timeline in order for us to be able to impose limits on government power over speech.
There is also a conflict regarding conversion. In most Muslim countries and at some Muslim events here in the U.S., proselytizing is prohibited. Islam is hostile to any attempts to convert followers—if you’re in it, you’re in it for life and there are draconian penalties if you attempt to convert. The Library of Congress contains a report about apostasy:
“This report surveys the apostasy laws of twenty-three countries in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia and primarily focuses on jurisdictions that make apostasy, or renouncing one’s religion, a capital offense. However, several countries that have adopted broadly-defined laws on blasphemy and insult to religion, which could potentially be used to prosecute persons for apostasy, have also been included, as well as one country that expressly prohibits extrajudicial punishment for allegations of apostasy.”
These laws are in existence today. Our president did not mention them. The Left plays a dangerous game by ignoring conflicts within Eastern and Western codes of law.
ANNIVERSARY OF A GENOCIDE IGNORED
For years, I have been intrigued by the refusal of almost every government around the world, except for France, to acknowledge the systematic killing of Armenian Christians. This year, 2015, marks the 100 year anniversary of that massacre that reduced the population of Armenians in the “declining Ottoman Empire” from two million to less than 400,000 between World War I and 1922. The word “genocide” was not coined until 1943 when the world finally admitted what the National Socialist German Workers Party was doing in an effort to eradicate the Jews.
As with the Nazis, part of the fuel that led to the Armenian genocide had to do with class warfare. John Kifner, writing for The New York Times, explained:
“Concentrated largely in eastern Anatolia, many of them merchants and industrialists, Armenians, historians say, appeared markedly better off in many ways than their Turkish neighbors, largely small peasants or ill-paid government functionaries and soldiers.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the once far-flung Ottoman empire was crumbling at the edges, beset by revolts among Christian subjects to the north — vast swaths of territory were lost in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 — and the subject of coffee house grumbling among Arab nationalist intellectuals in Damascus and elsewhere.
The Young Turk movement of ambitious, discontented junior army officers seized power in 1908, determined to modernize, strengthen and ‘Turkify’ the empire. They were led by what became an all-powerful triumvirate sometimes referred to as the Three Pashas.”
I recall my astonishment when a young progressive attorney founded a left of center media group in 2006 under the banner, The Young Turks. Some media questioned it in a soft spoken manner. The founder claimed the name had nothing to do with The Young Turks whose ideology murdered nearly an entire ethnicity, having aligned with Germany during World War I. The US Young Turks founder claimed the label “applies to any generic progressive political movement that threatens to upend the established order.” The name itself, in the historic context, belongs right up there with the Nazis.
An attempt was made in the US Congress to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. In 2007 an influential progressive website chastised Bush 43 for refusing to do that, claiming, “We are better than this.”
In 2012 an influential conservative website chastised Obama for refusing to do the same.
Both presidents, and presidents before them, refrained because Turkey was considered an ally. Yet we hold Germany accountable for the atrocities of the Nazis.
Obama’s speech overall was neither brilliant nor lackluster. The president was born to the stage; he has a natural ability to persuade through rhetoric. But when any president goes fishing in the vast pool of history, he should watch his line carefully less he snag himself with a hook.
The big takeaway, for me, was the missed opportunity to put the current war in proper perspective.
While I do applaud the president’s message of tolerance for the faiths of others, I also bemoan the fact he attempted to place all modern faiths on a level playing field. Conflating history and current policy was shortsighted at best. There is a faction of Islam intent on world domination, and that goal is even codified in the constitution of Iran.
Should we refuse to hold political Islam and Salafist groups unaccountable, many more Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and others will die, a reminder that those of us outside the political class are tragically and historically expendable regardless of faith, race, or ethnicity.
(Feb. 9, 2015)
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