TOPICS > Politics

Obama’s Speech Could Mark Shift in U.S.-Muslim Relations

June 4, 2009 at 6:15 PM EDT
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As reaction to President Obama's address in Cairo continues to filter in, analysts consider what the lasting effect Thursday's speech may have on U.S. policy and global attitudes.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more on the president’s speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for that, we get four views.

Rami Khouri is an editor-at-large of the Daily Star Newspaper in Lebanon. He’s also the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic.

Sumaiya Hamdani is an associate professor of history at George Mason University, where she founded the school’s Islamic studies program and served as its director until last year.

And As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus.

Thank you, all four, for being with us.

And I’m going to turn to you first, Rami Khouri in Beirut. You are there in a part of the Muslim world the president was referring to, was directing his remarks today to. Did he reset the relationship as he said he wanted to do?

RAMI KHOURI, Daily Star Newspaper: At the rhetorical level, I would say yes. Rhetorically, he’s been very well-received. There was a lot of good, positive vibes here and among many people that I’ve talked to.

But it was rhetoric. And people are happy to hear him talk about a variety of issues around the region, to look at the Middle East and the Arab-Asian region, which he calls the Muslim world, but it’s really the Arab-Asian region that we’re talking about.

And he talked with a lot of nuance and identified a lot of different issues that are important to people, recognized some historical traumas that people have suffered here, acknowledged a lot of the grievances that people are talking about.

There are a lot of good vibes, good feelings, good rhetoric. But none of it has been translated into serious policy yet.

But it was a speech, and people take it for what it is, which is setting out some American principles. We’ve yet to see a translation of those principles into real serious policies. But people are patient with Obama, they like what they’re hearing from him, for the most part, and we have to wait and see if he follows it up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Abderrahim Foukara here in Washington, what did you hear?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA, Al Jazeera Arabic: Well, what I heard, just like we heard from Rami, on the level of the rhetoric, the philosophy of the speech, if you will, which is, “I’ve come to you, to the Muslim world, to try and repair whatever damage has been done in relations between the Muslim world and the United States not just over the past eight years, but over a long period of time.”

That, obviously, rang very true. And it got very positive reactions to it, whether in the Middle East proper, if you will, or in other parts of the Muslim world, like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the level of policy, it was always expected that many of the things that he would say would be controversial. He said some very positive things about Israel and Palestine, which matters a lot to Arabs and Muslims. The issue of Palestine in the Muslim world was seen as being almost synonymous with his call for better relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

But you get people in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan, for example, who say, “OK, he’s come to us with his message of peace, but there are U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there are civilians being killed there by American forces.”

More emphasis, more detail

Sumaiya Hamdani
George Mason University
Obama was speaking to an audience, as opposed to at an audience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he addressed -- and these were items, Sumaiya Hamdania -- again, you're based here in Washington -- that he has addressed before, but today much more emphasis, much more detail.

SUMAIYA HAMDANI, George Mason University: I was very impressed with the speech, actually, and I was impressed with the speech for a lot of reasons. I think, first and foremost, the quality of the speech was one that was very different from the previous administration and, I think, for most administrations, U.S. administrations. Obama was speaking to an audience, as opposed to at an audience. And...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: By which I mean that he engaged the audience in terms that resonated with them. For example, whereas most U.S. presidents and policymakers have spoken in terms of freedom and democracy, much of his speech was really about justice, which is a concept around which political discourse is built in many over other parts of the world, including the Islamic world.

And I think that he also was able to engage the audience in terms of what was particular to their culture and heritage. But at the same time, what made it universal, in the introduction to his speech -- sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me -- I'm going to interrupt you there, because I want to bring in Mr. AbuKhalil out in California. As'ad AbuKhalil, from your perspective, how different were the words today from what we've heard from this president and from any president before?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL, California State University at Stanislaus: Not much, if you judge it by substance and not by style. In fact, if you judge it by the context, you have to remember that some of the positive reception to this speech in the Arab world is particularly because he is not George W. Bush, who is mightily loathed and despised throughout the Middle East and by Arabs and Muslims.

But you have to remember, just before the speech, he met with the Saudi king, he paid him tributes, and he praised his wisdom. And then he came to Cairo and then he also praised the Egyptian president, refused to label him for the dictator that he is.

And then we are expected that a nice-delivered speech, well-crafted, is going to sway Muslim-Arab public opinion? It's going to take much more than that.

More importantly, there are serious contradictions in the speech itself. On the one hand, he gave some lofty remarks about democracy and human rights, which were words that were uttered before by George W. Bush. But in the same speech, he also praised the Saudi king, the head of a kingdom which still practices rituals of public beheadings in the public square and which also still endorses the same fanatical ideology that inspires al-Qaida terrorists around the world.

He spoke about the Palestinian grievancaes, but in very bland and very general terms. He spoke very specifically about who was doing what to the Israelis, but when he spoke about Palestinian suffering, it was as if the Palestinians had for decades been suffering from successive hurricanes and tornados, as if the Israelis are blameless to what happened to them.

'Major contradictions' in policy

Rami Khouri
American University of Beirut
If you're really serious about engaging people, you don't make violent extremism the first point you raise in terms of dealing with the Islamic world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you bring up a number of different points. And let me come back to Rami Khouri. On the point that he went to Saudi Arabia, the fact that both that government and the Egyptian government are repressive governments in different ways, did that undermine what President Obama was saying in any way?

RAMI KHOURI: Oh, of course it did. Among many people in the region, especially democracy and human rights activists, and any reasonable political observer would say that.

But at the same time, I think people looked at this speech as simply an American setting out of certain principles. It was not a situation where they expected Obama to embarrass his host or come up with new policies.

But I agree with As'ad: There are major contradictions. And there's others that I can add to his list. For instance, only mentioning Iran in the context of nuclear bombs and threats, talking about the Islamic world, and the first of his seven points is violent extremism. I mean, if you're really serious about engaging people, you don't make violent extremism the first point you raise in terms of dealing with the Islamic world.

So there are several issues that the Americans still have to resolve. And the schizophrenia the U.S. is still following is clear, in terms of trying to engage Iran and Syria, but boycott Hamas and Hezbollah. That doesn't work.

So there's still confusion in Washington, but there's also a signal that Washington is trying to deal with this confusion and sort it out and to engage on a more mutually beneficial terms. And mutual rights and mutual interests, I think, was the key phrase in his speech.

If he actually pursues that, then we have, perhaps, something useful starting to happen. But there's no evidence of it yet in a serious way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sumaiya Hamdani, what about this? Do the contradictions override anything positive out of this speech?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: I would -- my colleagues are putting Obama's speech or putting his feet to the fire much more than I would. I listened to the speech as a speech by an American president. I listened to it for what kind of rationale he would provide for the kinds of policies -- rather than specific policies, but the rationale for the kinds of policies he would pursue. And I listened to the speech, I have to admit, as an American Muslim.

And on all of those levels, I found the speech impressive, in the sense that, again, he engaged the audience in terms that made sense to them.

I think with regard to, for example, the Palestinian issue, the fact that a U.S. president talked about the humiliation that Palestinians suffer under occupation -- I think those words are very important, because those are words the Palestinians have used to talk about their experience as displaced people, as refugees, as people trapped in the kind of Bantustans that exist in the occupied territories. And American presidents have not addressed them in terms that they themselves have used to describe their condition.

Israel, Hamas and Iran

As'ad AbuKhalil
California State University, Stanislaus
He may be softening his discourse towards Iran or Hamas or these groups, but it doesn't change the reality of American foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me bring in Abderrahim Foukara here. So is President Obama saying things in a way that could lead to something different happening in these relationships or not?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Well, I mean, it depends what you see as the pivot of whatever is going to happen in relations between the United States and the Muslim world. If you see the Israeli-Palestine issue as the pivot, he obviously -- he said something very interesting about Hamas, because the issue of Hamas ever since the latest war on -- Israeli war on Gaza, the issue of Hamas has been really central in public opinion and the fashioning of public opinion in the region.

And he said something very positive about Hamas. He said that there are a lot of Palestinians who actually are very sympathetic to Hamas, and he talked about resistance, although he put resistance in, basically, the context of violent resistance, as he called it. But nonetheless, he made this parallel between Hamas and resistance to the occupation of Israel...

JUDY WOODRUFF: As opposed to terrorism.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: ... as opposed to Hamas being just a terrorist organization, as the previous administration called it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor AbuKhalil, is that not significant that he talked about Hamas in that context?

AS'AD ABUKHALIL: I mean, not necessarily significant, because basically what he said, we basically saw that there was an election in Palestine and some Palestinians voted for Hamas. I mean, of course, by the standard of the previous administration, which refused to recognize the results of free election, that was a change.

But more importantly, is he going to be able to support the free election of people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in Palestine and elsewhere in the region? There are no indications of that. The United States continues its solid support and selling of weapons to some of the worst dictators in the region.

I mean, it's true he may be softening his discourse towards Iran or Hamas or these groups, but it doesn't change the reality of American foreign policy.

As was said previously, he mentioned Iranian nuclear weapons without any word about the big elephant in the room, which is the arsenal, the nuclear arsenal of Israel in the Middle East, which is a matter of big concern to Arabs in the region. Unless he assumes that Arabs find Iranian nuclear weapons to be deadly, but when it's in the hands of the Israelis it seems to be harmless, for that reason, so...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask, Rami Khouri, what about that?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, he made an allusion to the Israeli weapons, but it was not clear. He said something like, I know some people are worried about double standards.

But, again, we're getting some really fine rhetoric and some really impressive principles. And this is why Americans are so -- American values are so admired in this region. The basic values he articulated are terrific. And it's great for an American president to say these things in Cairo and to come to the Arab world.

I think his intent and his compassion are clear. He seems to be a credible person. People believe him; they like him. And this is a very good potential starting point. He is resetting the clock in a way. It's a new beginning, which is the title of the speech.

But I think the new beginning cannot just be rhetorical. The policies are often still contradicting the rhetoric. But I think we've got to give him some time. To be fair, we've got to give him some time.

And there are indications, appointing Mitchell, sending envoys to Syria, dropping the negotiation criteria with Iran, there are small signals of change that might come. But we're still -- I think this is -- it's like the third inning of a game.

Progress on Israel-Palestine issue

Abderrahim Foukara
Al Jazeera International
If there's any progress or benchmark for progress, it's going to be what he can do to force the Israeli government to do what he says he wants the Israelis to do with regard to the creation of a Palestinian state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Hamdani, that's a theme we're hearing from the four of you, and from several of you, and from other critics around, that there should be more concrete action. But what more concrete could have come today than what the president said, realistically?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: I think realistically not much. I mean, as he himself said in a speech, one speech does not make a big difference.

But I think what he did do in the context of a speech -- and an important one at that -- was to engage his audience and create this potential for common understanding and mutual interest.

One of the things that impressed me about the speech was that, unlike many political pundits and many authors of the contemporary scene in the Islamic world, he attempted to transcend what has been a kind of accepted "othering" of Islam.

He talked about the sort of debt that world civilization has to Islam. And in doing that, I think he transcended the sort of clash of civilization paradigm that has become so accepted.

And I think, in talking about Islam as to, quote, "a part of America," he went beyond the "othering" of Muslims in the West, which I think was also very important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's so much to chew over here. Let me finally come back to you, Abderrahim Foukara, here in Washington. What do we look for next after this speech, to know whether there was any meaningful effect from it?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: First of all, can I just quickly say one thing that will definitely rub people the wrong way in the region is the fact that he talked about Palestinians killing Israelis, but he didn't talk a lot about Israelis killing Palestinians, especially in the context of the latest Israeli war on Gaza?

Now, he's on the record as saying that he wants the Israelis to deal with the settlement issues. The Israelis have said no. And faced with that, the administration has clearly said, Look, this is just the beginning of the conversation. It's not the end of it.

And I think, if there's any progress or benchmark for progress, it's going to be what he can do to force the Israeli government to do what he says he wants the Israelis to do with regard to the creation of a Palestinian state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on the Muslim side?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: On the Muslim side, he said some very positive things in terms of the divisions that exist...

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, what has to happen? What do we look for as a sign that this speech has had some effect?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Well, that's really the crux of it. It's, let's be frank. What Arabs and Muslims want progress on is the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Now, if the Muslims and Arabs can coalesce in a way that actually helped him push the Israelis and translate his vision and translate Palestinian aspirations into a state, that's the way you judge it, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Much, much to talk about. Thank you all for being with us. Abderrahim Foukara, Professor Sumaiya Hamdani here in Washington, Rami Khouri in Beirut, and Professor As'ad AbuKhalil in California, thank you all.