Don’t know much about the Middle Ages
Looked at the pictures and I turned the pages
Don’t know nothing ‘bout no rise and fall
Don’t know much about nothing at all
– “What a Wonderful World” (1959)
Historical ignorance is the sine qua non for the success of two made-for-television extravaganzas staged this week among Europe’s crumbling political and cultural monuments. In each case, an audacious non-European impresario appropriates the Old Continent as the backdrop for fictive messages wholly at odds with actual facts.
The first attempt to substitute appearances for reality was an elaborate Saudi conference on inter-religious dialogue that ended in shambles (more on that below) last Friday in Madrid. Its highlight was King Abdullah’s arrival to open the proceedings by declaring that “Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance,” followed by His Majesty’s immediate departure for Morocco.
Some 300 religious leaders and various others took part. With a few honorable exceptions, most participants were nonentities with time on their hands, along with a few faded celebrities (such as Tony Blair and Jesse Jackson). Little wonder that the overall level of discussion was distressingly low, as this remark by an American participant suggests: “To see King Abdullah come and sit in a room with Christians, Jews, and other religious leaders, it is a moment in Islam much like what Vatican II was for Catholic theology.”
It would be hard to pack more ignorance about two religious traditions into a single phrase. Suffice it to say that the Madrid spectacle resembles the Second Vatican Council about as much as the aforementioned Jesse Jackson merits comparison with the Founding Fathers. But this is precisely the level of ignorance the Saudis are counting on to pull off this brazen publicity stunt (see here as well), while laughing up their sleeves and posing for the cameras as champions of moderation and tolerance, if not hope and change.
One immediate Saudi aim is to get off the State Department’s blacklist of religious persecutors. Others include playing to a specifically Muslim audience by advancing Abdullah’s novel (and hotly-disputed) claim of quasi-papal status within Islam as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (the mosques in question being the cities of Mecca and Medina). And, of course, Madrid itself serves as a not-so-subtle reminder of the hoped-for reconquista of formerly Muslim Andalusia.
The conference ended in disarray when organizers imposed a hard-line Islamist statement that most other participants hadn’t seen, much less debated. “For us as participants from other religions this is not an acceptable procedure for adopting documents,” one complained. Perhaps he was unaware that accepting Saudi largesse means playing by Saudi rules, a reality that Americans might ponder while filling up the family car.
The other made-for-television extravaganza, of course, is Sen. Barack Obama’s much-awaited speech this Thursday in Berlin. It’s the centerpiece of his European tour, which is designed to manufacture some much-needed statesmanlike gravitas for the freshman senator, who trails Sen. John McCain by 24 points in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll asking voters which of the two candidates is better qualified as commander-in-chief.
Obama has got his work cut out for him, given his boast that actual experience — specifically including doing one’s homework — pales in comparison with just being Barack Obama (“Obama: My childhood is foreign policy experience,” according to a November 19, 2007 AP report). In the same piece, Obama explains: “I spent four years living overseas when I was a child living in Southeast Asia. . . . A lot of my knowledge about foreign affairs is not just what I studied in school. It’s actually having the knowledge of how ordinary people in these other countries live.”
What’s more, learning history and international relationship by osmosis trumps going on legislative junkets, as Obama explains:
You get picked up at the airport by a state convoy and a security detail. They drive you over to the ambassador’s house and you get lunch. Then you go take a tour of some factory or some school. Children do a native dance.
Yet that’s a fair description of Obama’s European grand tour, give or take a native dance and a massive entourage including all three network-TV anchors.
By now everyone knows that Obama’s upcoming speech — the first-ever presidential campaign speech delivered before a mass audience overseas — will not take place against the backdrop of Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, notwithstanding Obama’s characteristically presumptuous demand for that venue.
Following in Kennedy’s and Reagan’s footsteps is an honor to be earned, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out last week. It’s equivalent to the old custom of awarding the freedom of the city to an exceptionally distinguished individual for some outstanding public service. That was the case when General Eisenhower spoke in London’s Guildhall in June 1945, one month after Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender. “Humility,” he said, “must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”
Does anyone expect such humility on display this Thursday?
– John F. Cullinan is an expert in international human rights and religious freedom.