obama egypt visit 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
"I think that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam. And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples" - President Barack Obama, according to a White House transcript of a BBC interview this week.
Obama's statement is questionable at the very least. First, there are an estimated 2.5 million to 3 million Muslims in the US, including African-American converts and immigrants. Second, the contribution of Islam to American civilization has been minimal. So I cannot see how America can be described as an important Islamic country.
It reminds me of Obama's inauguration speech, where he put Islam second to Christianity, with Judaism in third place, among the religious communities of America. This adds up to something that looks problematic. How can the president of the United States disregard the fundamental importance of the contribution of the Jewish community to American civilization and values?
The whole idea of Obama deciding to address the Muslim world is also problematic. The Arab media is touting it as a reconciliation speech and they are expecting him to "repent" or apologize for America behavior toward Islamic/Arab countries.
Some are already stating that whatever he says won't be good enough. Al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri called upon the Egyptians to reject Obama's speech even before it is delivered. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan issued a call to boycott Obama.
Yet we should ask ourselves whether the Muslims themselves should not apologize to the Americans for 9/11, and for countless terrorists attacks against US interest and citizens, the burning of its flags, the incitement of hatred and the distortion of history.
Regarding Egypt, Obama is in a quandary. Cairo is his main Arab ally in the Middle East. Egypt is still the most important Arab country and America needs its cooperation to maintain the peace with Israel and to contain Iran.
But what will the US president tell those Egyptians who are expecting stern words against dictatorship as well as encouragement of democracy and economic development? Obama will have to choose his words carefully to avoid angering President Mubarak while at the same time not disappointing the Egyptians.
Israel is also very much concerned. Will Obama put forward a peace plan that he intends to impose on Israel, or just speak in general terms about the need of both sides to negotiate?
It seems that he is going to be more specific - according to what he himself and some of his advisers have said lately about the Arab-Israeli conflict. And yet here again he has to know he is entering a potential minefield. An open confrontation with Israel would be detrimental not only to the deep-seated friendship of the two countries, but could have far reaching consequences for the stability of the Israeli government and of the country as a whole.
Obama would like nothing better than to come out of this speech with one, an Arab coalition - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf countries - in order to confront Iran; two, satisfying the Arab masses in their quest for democracy and economic development; and three, some sort of formula to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.
That seems as likely as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Osama bin Laden or the Muslim Brotherhood changing their beliefs about Islam and the West.
The writer, a former ambassador to Egypt, is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.