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Does The Muslim World Exist?

June 3, 2009

Since the inception of the war in Afghanistan, the notion that the US must reach an accord with the “Muslim world” has driven middle east policy as well as political discourse. At Foreign Policy, the concept of a unified Muslim world is challenged. Moreover, President Obama’s visit is seen as both an opportunity to heal old wounds and to change the international discourse.

This term is not only an analytical error – it’s also a critical public diplomacy mistake. “Muslim world” unfairly and singularly assigns adherents of Islam into a figurative ghetto. And particularly in the post-September 11, this relegation carries a real moral hazard: By lumping together extremists, secularists, and everyone in between, the term “Muslim world” legitimizes the idea that all of the group’s members are locked in deadly conflict with the non-Islamic world. If this sounds dangerously close to the message through which Islamist ideologues push for jihad, it is. Extremists are the only Muslim group that strongly advocates tying all Muslims together politically, in a united global community. In their ideal world, the modern nation state would be replaced with a new caliphate under Sharia law. Every time the United States speaks to the “Muslim world,” then, it inadvertently legitimizes the extremists’ vision.

Thankfully, President Obama has a chance to get it right. He got off to a good start on May 4 in Ankara, where he admirably addressed the Turkish people as democrats embedded in Europe. He appealed to them as allies in the struggle against Islamist extremism while challenging them on sensitive issues, including reconciling with neighboring Armenia. At the tail end of the speech, however, he made that critical rhetorical slip: “Let me repeat: The United States is not at war with the Muslim world.”

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