By Yasser Latif Hamdani
President Obama’s landmark speech was extraordinary and unprecedented. It marks a paradigm shift in US’ relationship with the Muslim world and is a recognition that our common earth needs to be saved from destruction and mindless violence. President Obama is proving himself to be the change that he promised. Yet as a Pakistani I feel that the speech was delivered at the wrong forum in the wrong city.
Let us forget and forgive the president for his glaring omission of Kashmir which he had rightly identified as a major flashpoint on the world map during his campaign. Even without Kashmir, the speech would still have a far greater impact had it been delivered in Islamabad instead of Cairo. Unlike Cairo where you have an unpopular but entrenched despot, Islamabad has an embattled democratic government which is fighting perhaps the most important civil war in world history since the American civil war itself. Infact its significance might be greater for it will determine the future of the entire Islamic civilization. Obama’s presence in Islamabad would have bolstered that effort greatly.
And unlike Cairo, Islamabad is the capital of the second largest Muslim country and population after Indonesia with 165 million Muslims within Pakistani borders. Indeed most of the world’s Muslims live outside the Arab world. Indonesia has more than 200 million, Pakistan 165 million, India has 145 million, Bangladesh has 140 million. Three of the major core Muslim majority countries are non-Arab- Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Considering this, Islamabad should have been the logical choice of this address.
Obama spoke of the diversity of the Muslim world and of women’s rights. Unlike Cairo which is dominated by Sunni Islam and is ethnically homogenously Arab, Islamabad is the capital of a state which is far more reflective of the diversity, both ethnic and sectarian. Consider for example the fact that Pakistan has both the second largest Sunni (after Indonesia) and the second largest Shia populations (after Iran) of the world. It is a land where many languages are spoken and many ethnicities live and its history is older than that of Egypt. As for women’s rights, it is Pakistan which as Obama himself pointed out elected a woman prime minister twice. Islamabad and the rest of Pakistan was the scene of the lawyers’ movement, a thoroughly secular movement for constitutionalism and fundamental rights- much of what Obama himself claims to uphold. All this would have helped Obama underscore his message of common bonds with Islam much more than his performance in Egypt.
Still a very important opportunity has been extended to us and we must clutch it with both hands. Our common humanity dictates us to do so.