As President Obama considers his first speech in a Muslim majority country (he visits Turkey April 6-7), and as the US national security establishment reviews its foreign policy and public diplomacy, I want to share the advice given to me from dear Muslim friends worldwide regarding words and concepts that are not useful in building relationships with them.
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“Freedom.” Unfortunately, “freedom,” as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. “Freedom” is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.
This is insanity. Freedom is at the core of American principles, and telling an American president not to use the term “freedom” in a speech because it might offend someone is nuts. There’s no need to go around deliberately offending people for no reason.
Do I want Obama to go tell Muslims that we’re on a “crusade” against terrorism? No, not any more than I want him to go speak to a group of disabled people and crack jokes about the Special Olympics.
But if you must offend people in order to communicate your core principles, so be it. (And by the way, I’ve never said anything different.)
And if an American president can’t talk about “freedom” to the people of the world, we may as well hang it up.