President Obama gave his first interview to the Al Arabiya television network. He talked of a new U.S. effort to reach out to "the Muslim world." He's hardly the first one to use that phrase. Think tank director John Esposito of Georgetown University regularly speaks of the Muslim world.
Question: What would be the reaction from the pundits and the talking heads if the President spoke of the U.S. reaching out to Christendom? That word used to describe the collection of countries in which Christianity predominated. You can well imagine. He would be denounced immediately as a theocrat. The very idea of Christian countries offends the cultured despisers of religion. Or, at least it offends the despisers of some religions.
When I hear Western leaders and intellectuals speaking of the Muslim world, I'm reminded of the late Meg Greenfield's comments at the time the American hostages were being held in Iran. Some of her fellow liberals were so eager to see things from the other fellow's point of view, she wrote in Newsweek, that if they were missionaries stewing in a pot, they would try to see the situation from their captors' perspective.
I miss Meg Greenfield's commonsensical liberalism. I doubt that anyone would have complained if the President had spoken of reaching out to Muslim friends in the Middle East, in South Asia. Or seeking to repair relations with majority-Muslim nations. But when we concede that there is something called a Muslim world, are we not at the same time conceding that there is a region of the world in which Christians and Jews may not go, may not live peaceably, must suffer dhimmi status if they survive at all?
George W. Bush was often accused of wearing his Christianity on his sleeve. He certainly didn't wear it on his flight jacket. President Bush invited the king of Saudi Arabia to his Texas ranch. There, he was photographed walking hand in hand with King Abdullah.
I confess I prefer the photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy back in 1945. There, the commander-in-chief sits with Saudi Arabia's legendary founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. The two men look serious, but restrained. The pose is formal, dignified, and correct. There's no gush. No obeisance. No apologies. Maybe that's why no one thought of throwing a shoe at FDR.
We do need a new relationship. We should speak candidly to the Arab states and to those Muslim-majority nations where some claim to be offended by American conduct. We should tell them of our own happy experience with religious liberty. When George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport in 1790, he said America must be a land where all enjoyed civil liberty and legal equality. He prayed to God and cited the Hebrew Scriptures: "Let each sit under his own vine and fig tree and let there be none to make him afraid." This bold statement, regrettably, has not always been true in America. Still, it is true that the government of the United States, in the timeless words of George Washington, "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Where in those regions where Islam predominates can this be said to be true--either in history, or today?