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Obama’s biggest battle in Cairo: Muslim conspiracy theories?

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 3, 2009 | 5:12 pm

We’re still waiting for President Obama’s much-anticipated speech at Cairo University Thursday, which you can receive in text installments on your cell, but already Al Qaeda is pissed off about what the U.S. president might say.

Difficult as it will be for Obama to chart a course for peace in the Mideast, Jacob Bronsther opines in today’s Christian Science Monitor that Obama’s biggest challenge is not Israeli settlements or the fate of Jerusalem but “Muslim fascination with conspiracy theories.”

Bronsther writes:

It goes beyond Saudi schoolbooks that teach as fact the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a demonstrably bogus Jewish “plot” for world domination) and Tehran’s sponsorship of a Holocaust skeptics conference. The 2004 tsunami? That was possibly caused by an Indian nuclear test, ably assisted by experts from the US and Israel, according to Egyptian newsweekly Al-Osboa. According to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, and Turkey do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. And when asked in the same survey what is most responsible for Muslim nations’ lack of prosperity, about half of those in majority Muslim countries responded “US and Western policies” either first or second, beating out “lack of education,” “government corruption,” “Islamic fundamentalism,” and “lack of democracy.”

Conspiracy theories threaten American diplomacy because when Mr. Obama promises X Thursday, a great percentage of Muslims will believe he really intends Y or that some shadowy organization will ensure Z. Every culture exhibits some interest in conspiracy theories (see “The Da Vinci Code”), but they are especially resonant in Muslim contexts, and Western leaders need to find a way to mitigate this problem. The first step is to understand its origins.

One explanation is Muslims’ historical experience with double-dealing, divide-and-conquering colonial masters. But there is a deeper rationale for religious Muslims (and most Muslims are extremely religious by Western standards). This is the cognitive dissonance – the mental disturbance caused by the collision of contradictory ideas – stemming from the Muslim world’s relative lack of prosperity and power.

You can read the rest here. Also in The Monitor, an exploration of why Obama is visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia but not Israel.

The most popular conspiracy theories, of course, are those pertaining Jewish world power. Their popularity is not limited to the Muslim world.

After the jump, a heads-up from the White House press office about what Obama will discuss in his speech. No real surprises here. This is Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter, speaking:

the President is still working on the final text of the speech, so we’ll get that when we have it.  But he tends to work on these things to the wire.

Just to talk a little bit about what the structure of the speech is—the President really sees this as an opportunity to continue a dialogue he’s had since his inauguration—you saw that in his Al Arabiya interview, in his Nowruz message, in his speech in Turkey, among other things—to really start a new chapter of engagement between the United States and Muslim world.

Now, the foundation of that engagement as he sees it is the ability to engage each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests.  And in that light, he feels it’s important to speak very openly and candidly about the very full range of issues that have caused some tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, and then also present a great deal of opportunity for partnership in the future.

To begin with, I think he’ll take on directly some of the misperceptions that may have emerged as well as some of the differences that have emerged.  I think he’ll acknowledge the need for us to get to know each other better.  As he has said, he’ll, for instance, discuss the relationship between Islam and America within America, particularly in light of the contributions of American Muslims.

But then what he will do is really go through in a very thorough way a broad range of issues that have been at the forefront of the agenda:  violent extremism and the threat that it poses, and what America has done in response; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what we’re doing there, and what we hope to do in the future in partnership with Afghans and Pakistanis.  He’ll discuss Iraq, both what we have done there and what we are doing in the future, again, to transition to Iraqi responsibility for Iraq.  He’ll discuss of course the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the broader Arab-Israeli issue, and acknowledging the fact that this has been a very important source of tension and passion for people of all faiths within this region and around the world, and he will discuss in some detail his view of the conflict and what needs to be done to resolve it. He will discuss both what that means in terms of Israelis and Palestinians and the United States and the Arab states, as well.

Then there’s a broader set of issues that have also been—or presented both causes for tension in the past but partnership in the future that have to do with areas such as democracy, human rights, and related issues to that.  And so I think you’ll see a forthright discussion in those areas.

And finally, though, the President is very committed to the positive partnerships that can be developed not just on the issues that I just discussed, where he thinks there’s actually a very broader convergence of interests than has often been acknowledged or is often reflected in the debate, but also on issues that really matter in people’s lives, in terms of economic development, in terms of education, in terms of health, in terms of science and technology; and the fact that as he said in Turkey, this can’t just be what we’re against; it has to be what we’re for and what we can do together.  And I think you’ll see some concrete steps towards developing partnerships in these areas so that we can deepen engagement between the United States and Muslim communities, and point towards opportunity for all of our people.

And so that’s really the broad framework of the speech.  There’s obviously a lot more that will be contained within that. There’s a lot—I don’t want to preview the details of what he’ll say on some of these more pressing challenges.  I’ll obviously leave that to him; he’s far more equipped to do it.  But that gives you a sense of it.

And there’s been some interest in the process of the speech. The President has obviously been focused on the speech for a long time, dating back to the campaign.  I will again, though, highlight that he’s been focused on it as a part of an engagement, not an engagement in and of itself.  So this is one step, not the final step.  There will be further communication to come, just as we’ve already done a number of things.

But in terms of this speech, what he was very clear with us was to cast a wide net both within the U.S. government and outside of the U.S. government.  So we talked to a broad range of experts in the government, but also in Washington and beyond.  He was very adamant that that include Muslim Americans; there’s a great number of Muslims who work in very important positions in the U.S. government on some of these issues.  And he got engaged in this at a very early point and has basically provided all of the vision for what should be in the speech and a lot of the content.  And for the last week he’s really just been frequently holed up with his draft and editing it very heavily.

So we’ve benefitted from a broad range of views; we know the interest that is in the speech and we believe that we’ve reached out and tried to hear from and understand a lot of the views that are out there.  But at the end of the day, the President has personally also been very invested in this, and I think you’ll see that in the speech he gives tomorrow.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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