For the first time, President Obama said that Islam needs a modernist reformation. This is what was missing from his speech at a Maryland mosque (see video below) on February 3, which presented a critical opportunity where Obama could have had his "tear down this wall" moment.
In a comprehensive interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama referred to his speech in Cairo at Al-Azhar University in 2009, saying:
"I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity."
Obama also said, "There is a need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society."
The Cairo speech was written to chip away at two boulders standing in the way of such a reformation, he explained: The scapegoating of Israel, which serves to distract Muslims from self-reflection and concerns about wholesale negative impressions of Muslims.
"I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I'm not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush," Obama argued.
Here, a word of caution is due: Not every "reformation" is equal. As Raymond Ibrahim explains, the hardline Islamic movements that President Obama wants swept away actually are a reformation movement. In fact, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and "Wahhabism" founder Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab styled their movements as "reformist."
President Obama's qualifier of a modernist reformation is helpful in guarding against these types of reformers. But again, another word of caution: Democratic elections are not necessarily the engines of this modernist reformation, since Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood participate in them.
One interesting point in the interview is when Jeffrey Goldberg reflects on President Obama's early closeness to the democratically-elected Islamist leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who was then prime minister and is now president of Turkey).
Goldberg writes that Obama now "considers him a failure and an authoritarian." Obama's mistaken hope in Erdogan and his deceitful "moderate Islamism" should be a hard-earned lesson.
An equally surprising part of the interview is when Goldberg explains how President Obama has noticed Indonesia "move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation" (Goldberg's words). Obama saw the proliferation of the hijab in Indonesia as indicative of this trend he is concerned about and for which he largely blames Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Obama's statements about the need for an Islamic modernist reformation are certainly welcome, but the right goal can only be achieved with the right strategy.
Similarly, the right reformation can only be achieved with the right reformers. And we have no reason to believe that the current administration has picked them, much less come up with a strategy to empower them.
Watch President Obama's Baltimore mosque speech:
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.