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Why We Should Get Rid of the Term "Muslim World"

By Parag Khanna
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Since taking office, President Obama has made great efforts to address the "Muslim world." In his first formal international television interview, with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, he announced, "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy." Then, speaking to Turkey's parliament, he declared, "The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."

Such statements have been heralded as a break from the Bush era, but in a way, they represent a disappointing continuity: Obama, like Bush before him, thinks that he can speak to some mythical community known as the "Muslim world." Like many other Western politicians and intellectuals, the president vests the term with too much meaning, and by using it incessantly, he misses the chance to truly win hearts and minds.

Just as there has not been any meaningful "Christian world" since the Holy Roman Empire, there has been no unified "Islamic world" since the Middle Ages. For centuries thereafter, Turks, Persians and Arabs squabbled over ideological hegemony. Sunni versus Shiite is just one of Islam's divides today, reminding the world that the faith has no supreme authority to which all believers adhere. By using the term "Muslim world," we only elevate the likes of Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden, whose rhetoric turns archaic Islamist fantasies into self-fulfilling prophecies. Speaking to all Muslims is speaking to none of them.

The United States will never pursue consistent policy across the Muslim world's petro-states, monarchies and failed states, nor do we need to do so. In Turkey, we should speak of how to help the country join the European Union. In Pakistan, focus on integrating tribal areas into the constitutional structure. In Egypt, speak of job creation and a legitimate transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak. Such efforts are taken through traditional foreign policy -- between nations, not cultures.

Eight years of talking of the "Muslim world" have only heightened mutual suspicions. After shelving the "war on terror," Obama should dump its alleged target audience from his lexicon as well.

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century."

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