Sean Curnyn and David Goldman both note the perils of a speech directed to “the Muslim world.” But at Public Discourse, Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the Witherspoon Institute’s Islam and Civil Society Project, notes that despite the characterization of the press, Obama didn’t address “the Muslim world”:
I first heard about Obama’s speech to “the Muslim world” from National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” top-of-the-hour report. It expressed the same impression conveyed by many news reports on the speech. From what the news outlets said, it seemed as if the United States government would remain trapped in post–9/11 strategic communication follies of feeding into Osama bin Laden’s “Muslims versus non-Muslims” narrative. For those first moments yesterday as I made my morning cup of coffee, it seemed, sadly, as if nothing had changed, as if this would be no “new beginning” at all.
The actual text of Obama’s speech, however, gives a much different picture. Obama did not fall into the familiar trap of referring to Muslims as if there were part of some entity in opposition to the United States called “the Muslim world”—a phrase which creates a seeming monolith which is wholly separate. Rather, in this speech Obama dropped the terminology of “the Muslim world,” and in its place he used phrases such as “Muslim communities” and “Muslims around the world” to convey the complexity of modern, lived Islam. When reflected in policy changes, these subtle but significant rhetorical shifts spell trouble for the Osama bin Ladens of this world.
In his speech, President Obama never referred to “Muslim countries.” This was spot-on. Instead he referred to Indonesia as an “overwhelmingly Muslim country” and to Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia as “Muslim-majority countries.” When he spoke of other topics, such as the vitally important topic of expanding literacy for girls, he referred again to “Muslim-majority countries.”
Fair enough, and a valid distinction worth noting. But I still share many of the criticisms that others have already outlined here at First Thoughts.