Ignored in the hoopla over the latest Israeli and Palestinian political developments is a little-noted anniversary: It has been three years since President Bush’s May 15, 2008 address to Israel’s Knesset. Bush spoke in remarkably religious and biblical terms, describing Israel’s creation as not just a new country, but “the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David—a homeland for the chosen people: Eretz Yisrael.” Bush added, “Our friendship runs deeper than any treaty. It is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul.”
The contrast in the respective religious flavors of the Bush and Obama administrations helps illuminate their differing approaches to Mideast issues. Moreover, it may highlight a serious misassessment of regional political realities by President Obama in continuing to lean on Israel for peace-process concessions.
Bush’s speech reflected his openness about his deep religious faith. His White House was famous for its strongly Judeo-Christian approach to foreign policy, saturated with concepts of good and evil, natural law, and the God-given nature of human rights, liberty and democracy. Bush and his team understood what it meant for people to be religious, and to live by the commands of their faith.
Obama, however, is of a more secularized and progressive world. His team won’t speak of Israel in biblical terms or of God’s promise to the Jewish people, but only in post-Holocaust terms. His urbane, liberal, intellectual circles are embarrassed by God-talk. Such sophisticates might be God-conscious for a few hours of religious service on a weekend or holiday, but God is largely kept confined to houses of worship. God is banished from any enlightened intellectual or international political discussion.
Such secularism, however, may cloud geopolitical vision. The Mideast is flammably not secular, filled with people who live and breathe their incompatible respective understandings of God’s word. Projecting our Western, tolerant worldview onto others, we underestimate the degree to which religion can motivate shocking actions, beliefs and political orientations, especially among radicalized populations: incomprehensibly evil as it may be to us, suicide-bombing is an act of supreme religious devotion.
Does the Obama administration truly appreciate the significance of dealing with religious populations? Obama’s infamous campaign statement that “bitter” working-class voters “cling to guns or religion…as a way to explain their frustrations” suggests incomprehension and condescension toward the religious. His refusal to recognize the Islamist nature of domestic terror attacks such as the Fort Hood shootings or blindness to the Islamist elements in this “Arab Spring” shows similar tendencies.
Famed scholar of Islam, Professor Bernard Lewis, once noted that the West thinks in terms of nations subdivided by religions; the Islamic world thinks of itself as a religion subdivided into nations. Islam is the basis of both identity and loyalty, and has little tradition of separation between religion and state.