The U.S. Embassy’s Problem in Indonesia Isn’t Scheduling

Fireworks for the Fourth of July in Washington D.C.

Fireworks for the Fourth of July in Washington D.C.

Fourth of July celebrations were re-scheduled out of respect for Ramadan. This approach highlights Western inability to engage constructively with the Islamic world.

Clarion Project, by Elliot Friedland, June 8, 2015:

This year the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, celebrated the Fourth of July a month early so as to avoid clashing with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Not only is this absurd, but what could have been a beautiful and respectful intercultural moment instead became a case study of the problematic and wrong-headed way Western leaders often engage with the Muslim world.

The Fourth of July, as America’s Independence Day, should be marked on that day by members of its diplomatic corps, who are America’s representatives around the world. After all, it is the job of American ambassadors to represent their country. That includes proudly celebrating American holidays and presenting the best of America to the world.

Moving Independence Day, on the other hand, belittles America’s standing in the world and shows others that America’s traditions, customs and festivals are negotiable.

The baffling part is that the Fourth of July is not in any way incompatible with Ramadan. One is a religious holy month that Muslims believe commemorates the first revelation of the Quran by Mohammed. The other is a national holiday celebrating independence.

Fourth of July celebrations could easily have been combined with an iftar dinner, the traditional Muslim post-Ramadan feast, taking place after dark and after the fasting has ended. Fireworks are better at night anyway.

Such a thing would have been an appropriate and encouraging demonstration of two cultures coming together in mutual respect to honor each other’s traditions.

Celebrating iftar and the Fourth of July one after the other should also have been no problem, if celebrating them both together seems too much like celebrating neither. If that would not have worked, a more low-key (and foodless) celebration during the day could easily have been arranged.

Many countries around the world celebrate such days and there is no indication that celebrating them causes offense to Muslims (or other faith groups).

Radical Islamists find national holidays offensive because they don’t believe in nations, holding instead that sovereignty belongs to Allah alone and power should be wielded in his name by the caliph. No doubt they will be overjoyed at the decision of America to move the Fourth of July.

But radical Islamists are not the group with which that America needs to be ingratiating itself. On the contrary, they have to be firmly and resolutely opposed to this group.

In and of itself, moving Independence Day is purely symbolic and some might argue, trivial.

But in diplomacy, symbols are very important. This is symptomatic of a broader unease and inability of Western leaders to engage constructively with Islam. In this case they simply negated the American in deference to the Islamic – a pointless gesture which only serves to embolden radicals, infuriate anti-Muslim bigots and confuse moderates.

In other cases, such as Dutch MP Geert Wilders’ preposterous call to ban the Quran, Westerners have demanded that Muslims negate their tradition, religion and culture.

Both approaches are fundamentally flawed.

If we are serious about combatting radical Islamism and supporting open and tolerant Muslim societies then we have to be confident in the ability of two cultures to interact together.

Rather than being a fine example of cultural sensitivity, this moving of Independence Day sends the message that the organizers themselves do not believe that American Independence is compatible with Islam.

That is a far bigger problem than mere scheduling.