The Corner

Obama’s U.N. Speech Showed Indifference to Freedom and Religious Minorities in Middle East

President Obama’s speech to the United Nations today displayed the tone-deafness to freedom and to the fate of non-Muslim peoples in the Middle East that he has shown since coming to office.

When he discussed Iran, a vicious dictatorship whose regime is rejected by the great majority of that nation’s population, what words of encouragement did he have for the Iranian people? None. On the contrary he said, “We are not seeking regime change,” reassuring not the people but their rulers. Adding insult to injury he then said, “Iran’s genuine commitment to go down a different path [on nuclear weapons] will be good for the region and the world, and will help the Iranian people meet their extraordinary potential — in commerce and culture; in science and education.” Missing entirely was the word freedom, which most Iranians think is a central part of their “extraordinary potential.” When one thinks of Ronald Reagan’s messages to the people of the Soviet Union, assuring them that we understood the true nature of the tyranny under which they lived and that we hoped for the day when it would fall, the decline in America’s moral leadership is shocking.

The president also had a comment about violence within Middle Eastern societies. Telling the U.N. that “we will be engaged in the region for the long haul,” he then added:

This includes efforts to resolve sectarian tensions that continue to surface in places like Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. Ultimately, such long-standing issues cannot be solved by outsiders; they must be addressed by Muslim communities themselves. But we have seen grinding conflicts come to an end before — most recently in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants finally recognized that an endless cycle of conflict was causing both communities to fall behind a fast-moving world.

What is the message here to Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other religious minorities who live in the Middle East? Tragically the message is that they don’t even exist in his eyes. He actually made a reference to Christians in the very next sentence, apparently unaware that Christian communities are under attack every day in the region — most recently in Egypt. “Sectarian tensions” are not the problem; attacks on religious minorities are the problem that is destroying Christian communities, and the solution is not for it to be “addressed by Muslim communities” as if the non-Muslims were not citizens with equal rights and greater antiquity.

The president’s speech may well cause smiles in Tehran, but in the homes of Iranians desperate to rid themselves of that despotic theocracy, and in the homes and churches of Middle Eastern Christians who fear for the futures and their very lives, the president is more likely to have produced despair. It’s quite a day’s work.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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