[President George W. Bush addresses the Iftar Dinner with Ambassadors and Muslim leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, Oct. 16, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse]

A State of Confusion: President Bush’s Personal Understanding of the Islamic World
by David Fideler

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when discrimination and incidents of violence against Muslims in the United States increased, President Bush went out of his way to emphasize that Muslims were good American citizens and that Islam was “a religion of peace.” Bush met with prominent Muslim leaders as a show of solidarity, and began hosting a series of annual iftar dinners at the White House.

More recently, in August of 2006, as President Bush’s political fortunes sank to a new low point, Bush stated to the media that “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists,” in response to a foiled terrorist plot aimed at British airliners. While there are without question totalitarian ideologies at work within segments of the Islamic world (as in other cultures), Bush’s calculated “at war with Islamic fascists” soundbite came across like a desperate, last ditch effort to recapture public support for the failed policies of the Neocons. Not surprisingly, the remarks were viewed as ill-advised by various Muslim groups in the United States, because of their potential to increase polarization and inflict further damage, both here and abroad. (Whether Karen Hughes, the administration’s public relations czar with the Islamic world, approved the remark in advance, seems doubtful.)

On October 16, 2006, the White House hosted its sixth annual Iftar Banquet. As might be expected, the “Islamic fascists” soundbite had been dropped, as Bush returned to the official agenda of trying to encourage good relations with Muslims. The well-crafted speech contained many beautiful lines, praised Islamic ideals and Muslim Americans, and concluded with the following thought:

On this special evening, we celebrate the millions of Muslims that we are proud to call American citizens. We honor the many Islamic nations that America is proud to call friends. And we renew the ties of friendship that should bind all who trace their faith back to God’s call on Abraham.

A Question of Understanding

Despite these beautiful sentiments, one might still be left wondering how much Bush personally understands Muslims and the contemporary issues facing the Islamic world. After all, as the President of the United States we would expect Bush to be well-informed on what are now critical issues for United States foreign policy. Theoretically, the president has access to the best advisors and best available intelligence on these pressing topics. And some type of critical understanding is surely necessary for guiding the American nation’s foreign policy when it comes to our relations with the Islamic world.

As for Bush’s own personal understanding, a recently published transcript of his informal, off the cuff discussion with some conservative columnists throws an alarming light on the actual situation. The following excerpts from this transcript, along with comments by George Mitchell, are taken from Mitchell’s article “Bush Among Friends,” which appeared in Editor and Publisher.

Speaking of the war in Iraq, Bush says, “I believe when you get attacked and somebody declares war on you, you fight back. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Mitchell notes, “Of course, this ignores the fact that Iraq did not declare war on us — but it’s been so long now, maybe he’s just forgotten.”

The article continues:

A critical moment arrives when Bush announces, “And I’m trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure is less violence than before, I guess. We’ll have to see what happens here after Ramadan. I believe these people — oh, I was going to tell you Abizaid believes Ramadan, no question, caused them to be more violent because he says there’s some kind of reward during Ramadan for violence.”

Memo to the president: Ramadan ended three days before this and the number of Americans killed continues to surge, with at least five killed in the day before he said this.

But Bush calls the war “a struggle of good versus evil,” adding, “Maybe it’s not nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff — that’s fine. But that’s exactly what a lot of people like me think.”

Sometimes the columnists offered Bush suggestions on how to sell the war on terror. This happened after the president described the enemy, bizarrely, in the broadest terms: “We will press and press and press to protect ourselves. And this stuff about how Iraq is causing the enemy — whatever excuse they need, they have made up their mind to attack, and they grab on to things to kind of justify. But if it’s not Iraq, it’s Israel. If it’s not Israel, it’s the Crusades. If it’s not the Crusades, it is the cartoon. I’m not kidding you. I’m not kidding you.”

This provokes “laughter,” according to the transcript. But Bush presses on. “They are cold-blooded killers.”

“If it’s not the Crusades, it’s the cartoon — that’s a good slogan,” one of his guests suggests.

Sadly, if this level of nuanced understanding leaves the reader in a state of confusion, you are probably not the only one.

David Fideler holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and cultural studies. He is the translator, with his wife Sabrineh, of Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition.