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Muslim Reaction to Obama’s Address

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a discussion today of President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world and the reaction to it. Kate Seelye was a longtime Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut. She is now a vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Vali Nasr is a professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is also serving as a special adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is leading US diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Professor Nasr speaks here for himself, not for the US government.

Welcome to you both. Professor Nasr, let’s begin with you. The reaction throughout the Muslim world — what do you hear?

Dr. VALI NASR (Professor of International Relations, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University): Very, very positive. There’s no doubt that the speech exceeded expectations from the vast majority of Muslims all the way from Indonesia to Nigeria. Even though the president did not go deeply into policy, I think the level of respect and empathy and seriousness that he showed in terms of engaging the Muslim world was very well understood by the public and very much appreciated.


Kate Seelye

ABERNETHY: On the other hand, Kate, there was a lot of criticism, wasn’t there, or some guarded comments from officials?

KATE SEELYE (Vice President, Middle East Institute, Washington, DC): Well, there were. I think people are—there are some who are holding reservations. They want to see if he’s going to translate his words into action. There was also some disappointment on the part of democracy activists who wanted him to be tougher, let’s say, on Arab leaders, who wanted to put more pressure on them. And there were some who wanted him to be tougher on the Israelis. But by and large, people were very positive and felt that he went out of his way to try to bridge this gap between America and the Muslim world.

ABERNETHY: What could be the deeds now that would satisfy the people to whom Obama was talking?

Dr. NASR: I think one of the ways to look at this is that the speech or the series of speeches he’s given is a deed in itself. In other words, our habit in this region is that administrations come up immediately off the bat with a plan of action for something, whether it’s Iran, Arab-Israeli issue, Afghanistan. This president understood that there is no point trying a new policy before you change the context in which you engage the other side. So I think his very first policy, his very first deed has been to gain trust, and I think the first way in which he has to be measured is by trust, and I think Kate’s point, which is correct, there are — I think he’s been successful enough that some actors like the Iranian government or Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood may worry that he’s quickly changing the game on them very fast and effectively, and some of the reaction we’re seeing has to do with that.


Bob Abernethy

ABERNETHY: But a specific deed now to follow this, Kate, what could that be?

Ms. SEELYE: Well, I mean everybody’s waiting to see what he’s going to do vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli peace process. What steps he is going to take to pressure the Israelis perhaps to halt settlement building. This is what Arabs and Muslims are looking for — concrete deeds with regard to the peace process, frankly.

ABERNETHY: Did you feel on that that he was tilting a little bit toward the Palestinians?

Ms. SEELYE: Well, he acknowledged the Holocaust, he acknowledged the suffering of the Jews, and he also acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians, and this was really a first. Many presidents have acknowledged the need for a two-state solution, but few have said, you know, I feel for the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. He won high marks for that.

ABERNETHY: I was struck by the language, especially the references to the Qu’ran and other phrases that come out of the Islamic tradition. That can’t help but have helped him in the Muslim world.

Dr. NASR: Absolutely. I mean, there are ways of using the Qu’ran and then there are ways of using the Qu’ran. Often Western commentators or leaders usually use the Qu’ran in order to hit the Muslims on the head with it. In other words, use their own scripture in order to preach to them very selectively. This president, I think, has used a very light touch in terms of trying to use the Qu’ran to convince the Muslims that he believes they belong inside the tent — that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian tradition with the Muslim standing out there. The way he used the Qu’ran, particularly at the end, was to say that there is an Islamic-Judeo-Christian civilization—that your values are the same as our values and our values are the same as your values, and look, here is the example by referring to all three scriptures at the same time, and I think that’s what’s most effective.

ABERNETHY: And as you said, this attempt to build respect with the audience he was talking to is the first step in new policy?


Vali Nasr

Dr. NASR: Well, absolutely. If you looked at the Bush administration, their approach was that you are either with us or you’re against us. It’s either black or white, and the burden was on Muslims to prove themselves innocent. In other words they’re guilty unless proven innocent, and they set down a set of markers which basically meant abandon your faith, change it, reform it, change everything, and then you’ll be sort of acceptable. This president is starting from a very different point of view. First of all, he’s creating a massive gray area in the middle. It is not either us or you, that we have a common arena in which we share, and the burden is not on Muslims to prove that their religion matters or that their values are world values. He immediately off the bat said, “I agree with that, and I’ll give you better examples than you can yourselves.”

Ms. SEELYE: Yes, and if I might add to that, I mean he was very sensitive about language and Muslim sensitivities. He never once used the word “terrorist,” because over the past eight years the word terrorist has become synonymous with the word Muslim and Islam. So he avoided these words, and he used language that people applauded. When he talked about the Prophet Muhammad he said “peace be upon him.” That was very important for Islamists and traditionalists watching his speech.

ABERNETHY: What about nuclear weapons? What can you divine in the speech about how that problem can be addressed now?

Dr. NASR: That’s a problem that has to be solved at the negotiation table, and we will not see where it is going until the day the United States and Iran are sitting at the table and discussing it. But I think the president is trying to make it easier or in some ways compel the Iranian government not to hide behind excuses that Americans are not sincere, they’re not serious, there’s no point talking to them. To say that you — look, there is a pathway for you to come in, and the United States is going to engage Iran over these very serious issues from a position of respect.

ABERNETHY: Kate, did you hear anything from people you know in the Muslim part of the world about what we’re talking about? Did anybody say anything to you?

Ms. SEELYE: Oh, absolutely. I had some blogger friends from Saudi Arabia say that they were thrilled by this speech because it wasn’t directed toward Arab leaders. Obama never once mentioned the name of Hosni Mubarak, the host. He was speaking to the youth, to the women, to the people of the Arab world, and that’s very rare in a region where people don’t feel like they’re being addressed by their leaders. Here was this leader of the world superpower saying, “I care about you. I want to help you. Your education is important. Let’s invest in you.” That was profoundly appreciated.

ABERNETHY: Many thanks to you, Kate Seelye, and to Professor Vali Nasr.