Why Egypt?

President Obama will give a speech in Egypt on June 4 about America’s relations with the Muslim world. Why Egypt? I suspect many Americans think that Egypt is the largest Muslim country, but the White House and the State Department surely know that it’s not even in the top 5. I think White House press secretary Robert Gibbs touched on the reason when he was asked “Why Egypt?” and he responded that Egypt “represents the heart of the Arab world, and I think [the trip will be] an opportunity for the President to address and discuss our relationship with the Muslim world.”

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism. Obama has received some criticism for giving his speech in a repressive country and seeming to embrace Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy. But the criticism ought to go deeper: He should give his speech on U.S.-Islamic relations in the region of the world where most Muslims live, and where Muslims are successfully joining the modern world. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

According to this chart based on the CIA World Factbook, Egypt is the seventh-largest Muslim country. Another chart shows Egypt fifth, but still far behind the Asian countries. Americans should take a close look, as we tend to associate Islam with the Arab world and its discontents. 

Country Muslim Population
1 Indonesia 182,570,000
2 Pakistan 134,480,000
3 India 121,000,000
4 Bangladesh 114,080,000
5 Turkey 65,510,000
6 Iran 62,430,000
7 Egypt 58,630,000
8 Nigeria 53,000,000
9 Algeria 30,530,000
10 Morocco 28,780,000
 
Source: CIA World Factbook