Obama in Cairo

COMMENTARY

Yvonne Haddad is professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding:

President Obama’s address to Muslims has been received quite enthusiastically by many, particularly those in the audience in Cairo as well as American Muslims who finally heard a president who did not reiterate stereotypes of Islam and Muslims or make reference to “Islamo-fascism” or “Islamic terrorism.” They welcomed his respect and recognition of Islam’s contribution to human civilization. They were specially impressed by his statement that Islam is part of America, after suffering from abusive language and derision for the last eight years. They also welcomed his support for religious freedom and the wearing of the hijab.

Many gushed over the president’s use of the Islamic greeting and his quotations from the Qur’an. His speech has been described by the Council on American Islamic Relations as “comprehensive, balanced, and fair.” He has also been praised as “ambassador for America to the Muslim world.”

Others were not quite as mesmerized by the rhetoric and the oratory of the carefully crafted message. One activist dismissed the speech as “Bush in sheep’s clothing” since it appeared to continue the policies of the Bush administration. These others were concerned that the speech did not break new ground in policy or propose what they consider necessary for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who have been expecting a new Obama Doctrine were disappointed by the lack of concrete policies to resolve the problem. While some may dismiss their peeves as maximalist demands of short-sighted ideologues unwilling to engage in resolving the outstanding issues except on their terms, they did question several of Obama’s statements. For example, he talked about the slaughter of the innocent in Bosnia and Darfur, but failed to include among the innocents the 1400 Palestinians recently killed in Gaza.

While Obama justifiably condemned the perpetrators of 9/11 for killing “innocent men, women and children,” he made no reference to the peeves of the perpetrators who justified their deed as avenging the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent children in Iraq as a consequence of America’s policy of containment put in place after the first Gulf War.

While Obama talked about Palestinian Christians and Muslims who have “suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” he did not recognize that they had been expelled from their homeland due to Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing. He noted that “Palestinians must abandon violence” and made no reference to Israeli violence that has placed Palestinians within what some refer to as the “apartheid wall.”

While Obama made reference to the Arab peace initiative, he dubbed it as “an important beginning but not the end,” in a sense sanctioning Israel’s perpetual demands for continued concessions.

While Obama reiterated his stance that Israel should freeze the building of settlements, he failed to note that all settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. He did not outline how he will proceed to implement Israeli compliance with the road map peace plan.

Obama’s speech broke new ground. It started the process of helping American Muslims feel once again at home in the United States. It also reassured Muslims overseas that Americans are not after Muslim resources, nor are they engaged in a new Crusade. It put the Muslim world on notice that there is new leadership in America. The world’s Muslims now await the implementation of policies that demonstrate good will and evenhandedness.

Omid Safi is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

Historic. Brilliant. Nearly perfect.

The tone of President Obama’s speech in Cairo was most reminiscent of his masterly speech on race in America: acknowledging open wounds on all sides while laying out a hopeful vision for a shared future. It was a narrative rejecting the neoconservative nightmare of the past eight years that perpetuated the fallacy of the “clash of civilizations.”

Obama began by mapping his hope for a “new beginning between United States and Muslims around the world.” He then offered “the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive…they overlap.…” He went on to identify the common principles between Islam and America: “justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Words have power, and Obama spoke powerful words. He offered the Muslim greeting of peace (al-salam alaykum) to his audience and acknowledged the reality of Western colonialism, as well as his hope for a shared vision of coexistence and peace.

Powerful is the vision of an American president approvingly citing from the Qur’an [chapter 5, verse 32] that to save one human life is akin to saving the life of all humanity, and taking one human life is akin to taking the life of all humanity.

Obama hit many of the right notes. He conveyed to his audience that he is familiar with the vast and glorious history of Islam, such as the long periods of religious tolerance in Andalusia, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace under Islamic rule. He praised Muslim contributions to science, philosophy, and learning. His mention of “timeless poetry and cherished music” was a nod to the rich aesthetic tradition of Islamic cultures.

The nuanced position Obama took on Palestine/Israel was the most closely watched component of his speech. The tone was expected, affirming America’s allegedly “unbreakable” bond with Israel while also acknowledging that Palestinians suffer in “intolerable” conditions. Yet the specifics offered were bolder: two states living side by side, a rejection of illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and Jerusalem as a city shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Many Muslims were offended that there was no mention of the recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Furthermore, it is maddeningly frustrating for Muslims to be repeatedly told they have to recognize Israel’s right to exist when the borders of the state they are being asked to recognize are not specified. Would it be the 1967 borders? 1973? 2009? In addition, this overlooks the multiple times Arab and Muslim states, including Palestinian authorities, have in fact recognized Israel.

As incomplete and, indeed, flawed as that portion of the speech was (delivered under intense preemptive pressure from the Israel lobby), there was a magical, Obama-at-his-best appeal to the Night Journey (Isra) of the Prophet Muhammad, when he prayed together with all the prophets, including Moses and Jesus, in Jerusalem. This is Obama at a level of rhetorical brilliance and inclusiveness that is simply unmatched in American politics.

There were other missed opportunities. There were no critiques of Egypt’s own violations of human rights, something Muslim human rights activists were eager to hear. As a committed Christian, Obama knows all too well the biblical challenge (Matthew 7) “you shall know them by their fruits.”

Obama’s words were historic, brilliant, almost perfect. Now comes the hard part of following up on the beautiful intentions and the inclusive words: righteous and courageous action that brings all those of good will together. He—and we—shall be judged, on Earth and in Heaven, by those actions.

Tariq Ramadan is professor of Islamic studies on the faculty of theology at Oxford University and visiting professor at Erasmus University in the Netherlands:

We are used to nice words, and many in the Muslim majority countries as well as Western Muslims have ended up not trusting the United States when it comes to political discourse. They want actions, and they are right. This is, indeed, what our world needs. Yet President Obama, who is very eloquent and good at using symbols, has provided us in his Cairo speech with something more than simple words. It is altogether an attitude, a mindset, a vision.

In order to avoid shaping a binary vision of the world, Obama referred to “America,” “Islam,” “the Muslims,” and “the Muslim majority countries.” He never fell into the trap of speaking about “us” as different from or opposed to “them,” and he was quick to refer to Islam as being an American reality and to American Muslims as being an asset to his own society. Talking about his own life, he went from the personal to the universal, stating that he knows by experience that Islam is a religion whose message is about openness and tolerance. Both the wording and the substance of his speech were important and new: he managed at the same time to be humble, self-critical, open, and demanding in a message targeting all of “us,” understood as “partners.”

The seven areas Obama highlighted are critical. One might disagree with his reading and interpretation of what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine (and the US role in these conflicts), but he avoided shying away from addressing these issues and called all the parties to take their share of responsibility by putting an end to violence and promoting respect and justice. He clearly acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians and their right to a viable and independent state.

It is a necessary first step. The future will tell us if the new president has the means to be strong and consistent when dealing with the Israeli government. He left open some channels to dialogue with both the Palestinian Authority (calling for unity without sidelining Hamas) and Iran. These remain critical issues, and there will be no future without addressing them with consistency and courage. Expectations are immense, and Obama still has to show his true, practical commitment to justice and peace.

President Obama made an important distinction between democratic principles and political models. The rule of law, free choice of the people, and duty of transparency are universal principles, while political models depend on historical and cultural factors being taken into account. I hope the Obama administration puts this vision into practice by both promoting democratization everywhere and scrupulously respecting the choice of the people. It would be good to start with Iraq and Afghanistan. As to the undisputable principles of democracy, this is a good reminder to utter in Egypt, to the Egyptian government.

President Obama started his speech with the more political issues and quite intelligently ended with the critical areas of women and education. This is where, he recalled, we all have to do much better. In these two areas he came to Cairo with practical solutions and presented future interesting projects. Facing economic crisis, doubts, fears, and global threats, the world needs women to be more involved and education to be promoted everywhere. These common challenges helped the president, once again, to talk about an inclusive us, a “new we,” so to say, where we are partners sharing the same concerns, facing up to similar challenges, exposed to common enemies.

This speech was not only directed to the Muslims around the world. The West and non-Muslims should listen. President Obama acknowledged the historical Islamic contribution to scientific development and thought. He wants his fellow American citizens to learn more about Islam, to be more humble, and he expects all “liberals” not to impose their views on practicing Muslims, men and women. No one can impose a way of dressing or a way of thinking, and we should learn from one another. The implicit reference to the French controversy around the headscarf was indeed quite explicit.

The president quoted religious texts from the three monotheistic faiths, everyone of them delivering a universal message, as if true universalism is about educating one’s self, listening to and respecting the other.

Two days before his speech in Cairo, Obama surprisingly stated that America was a great “Islamic country.” It was a way for him to remind Americans, as well as all Westerners, that Muslims are their fellow citizens and Islam is a religion that is part of their common national narrative.

This was a powerful speech that was not only a speech: it embodies a vision both positive and demanding. Something has surely changed. Just as Barack Obama went from personal to universal principles, so we are waiting for him to go from the ideal to the practical. He is young, he is new, he is intelligent and smart. Has he the means to be courageous? For it is all about presidential courage as one wonders if it is possible for the United States to be simply consistent with its own values. Could one man tackle and reform this extraordinary tension that inhabits the contemporary American mindset, on the one hand promoting universal values and diversity while on the other nurturing a spirit that still has some features of imperial attitude intellectually, politically, and economically?

President Obama will not be able to achieve it alone, and maybe his greatest challengers so far are more the Indians and Chinese than the Muslims. Yet it remains critical to acknowledge the positive sides of a speech announcing “a new beginning.” It is imperative for Muslims to take Obama at his word and, instead of adopting either a passive attitude or a victim mentality, to contribute to a better world by being self–critical and critical, humble and ambitious, consistent and open. The best way to push Obama to face up to his responsibility in America, the Middle East, or elsewhere is for Muslims to start by facing up to their own without blindly demonizing America or the West or naively idealizing a charismatic African-American US president.

A personal note: President Obama wants us “to speak the truth.” It happens that once I spoke the truth about the illegal American invasion of Iraq and the blind unilateral support of America towards Israel. I have been banned from the United States and still remain so. It may be one of these inconsistencies that make some of us still doubt the very meaning of political words. Once again, a question of consistency.

Marc Gopin is the James H. Laue Professor and Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution:

One of the most interesting comments in the speech reflects what the president said in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman about his strategy for the Middle East: “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working.” This is brilliant as a strategy. It makes every party face up to its private acknowledgments of what is true, and it challenges them to go public. It makes everyone responsible, including America. It is balanced and reasonable. A great start!

Amir Hussain is professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles:

As an American Muslim who is also a scholar of Islam in America, I was eagerly anticipating President Obama’s speech in Cairo. I couldn’t be more delighted with what he said. In January of this year, I was in Cairo for a conference sponsored by Al-Azhar University on “Bridges of Dialogue with the West.” That President Obama opened with a mention of Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and still the seat of Sunni Islamic learning, will certainly be noted by Muslims around the world. That he opened with the basic Muslim greeting, al-salaamu alaikum, and quoted several times from the Qur’an will also be noticed.

There is so much to praise about this speech. First is the historical connection with Muslims and America. This is something dear to me, as I’m currently working on a book for Baylor University Press entitled Building Islam in America. My work in the past dozen years has looked at how American Muslims have adapted to being in a minority, multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious setting in America, where they also have to deal with issues of Western modernity (for example, reactions to gay marriage). The book I am writing turns that question on its head and asks not how have American Muslims changed to accommodate living in America, but how has America been changed by the presence of American Muslims?

President Obama addressed that eloquently, talking about the history of Islam in America. Second, he talked of the mutual misperceptions many Americans have about Islam and many Muslims have about America. The natural bridge here, of course, is American Muslims, who as American Muslims have not just survived but thrived in America. Third, the speech did talk about sensitive issues such as nuclear weapons in Iran and the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. While some may be critical about President Obama not going far enough on this, his words resonated with me about the need for a secure Israel but also a Palestine where Palestinians can live in safety and dignity.

It has been a long time since a speech by a politician resonated so deeply with me. God bless President Obama, and God bless us all.

Ali S. Asani is professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures at Harvard University:

One day after President Obama’s historic address to the world’s Muslims, every word, every phrase, every sentence of his speech is being carefully parsed. The aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terror have created a noxious atmosphere rife with misunderstandings, mutual hatred, and stereotypes. For many Americans, Islam and Muslims have become the “other,” while many Muslims have come to perceive America and Americans as a mortal enemy.

How will this speech impact the polarized relationship of the United States government with Muslim communities and nations around the world? What are its implications for US foreign and domestic policy? Worldwide reactions to the speech are also being analyzed. The verdict is mixed. Some loved it, some thought it did not go far enough, and a few objected to it as being apologetic, full of niceties but no real substance. What is easy to lose sight in all this analysis is that, for many Muslims, Barack Obama embodies in his person someone they admire and can relate to and, yes, perhaps even trust.

During a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, a Saudi guide told me that when he heard Americans had elected Barack Hussein Obama as their president, tears of joy welled up in his eyes. “If the great American people can elect a man with Obama’s background to be their president,” he said, “then there is hope that anything is possible. Change can happen, perhaps even in Saudi Arabia itself. I admire that man and what he stands for.”

I have heard similar comments from Muslims in Egypt, Dubai, Pakistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and India. Such remarks remind us that the United States has in its current president a man with an uncommon background and personality who is uniquely qualified to deliver an unprecedented message of hope and understanding to a world characterized by globalization, interdependence, and diversity. As the Christian son of an African Muslim father who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and members of whose family are Muslims, the American president has lived and engaged with many kinds of differences –- racial, religious, ethnic, national.

Engaging with those who are different from oneself is not an easy task. It is a struggle that tests one’s patience and humility, but it is a worthwhile struggle, for we learn not only to see the world from another perspective but to respect that perspective. When President Obama spoke to an audience of three thousand at the University of Cairo, he embodied for them the values he referred to in his address — respect for difference, human dignity, humility, and intercultural understanding. When he quoted the Qur’an, “Be conscious of God and speak the truth,” and went on to speak the truth as he saw it, he represented in his person and demeanor that honesty. When he said that it was his responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative and crude stereotypes of Islam and Muslims as well as of America and Americans, he spoke as a pluralist who understood from personal experience the dehumanizing nature of stereotypes. In a different world Roger Ailes would have said, “He was the message.”

Barack Obama’s charisma, so apparent during his address, is based on his humanity and humanism. It is true that one speech cannot change the course of history, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that President Obama is rapidly becoming a hero, if he is not already, for many around the world, regardless of their national and religious affiliation, including many Muslims. In this sense, he is the worst nightmare not only for al-Qaeda but for all those who believe in the clash of civilizations and insist on using difference to dehumanize the “other” – whoever the “other” may be.

The ultimate challenge is: will the world heed his call to join hands for the betterment of “us” all rather than being intent on destroying the “other”? Will it realize the truth that he has come to recognize, a truth echoed in a Qur’anic verse he cited at the end of his speech: God created diversity so that we may learn from one another?

Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Professor of Law at UCLA:

After eight years of boorish, war-mongering speeches and policies by the Bush administration, there is no doubt President Obama’s ecumenical speech in Cairo fell upon warm ears.

Obama spoke to Muslims as human beings, and Muslims who have grown so accustomed to being caste into the archetype of the counterpoint—the archetype that helps define the West by being its antithesis—were jubilant. Once again, Muslims learned that they can never enjoy the kind of privileged “unbreakable bond” that is exclusively reserved for the VIP members of the Western club, but Muslims were jubilant to learn that they are not members of the caste of lowly untouchables.

In his typically dignified and studious demeanor, Obama told Muslims he respects their faith and culture, he does not approve of religious bigotry, and he recognizes that Muslims have made numerous contributions to world civilization. He rightly refused the same old polarizing arguments: no to the clash of civilizations model, no to “cosmic wars” against jihadists or political Islam, and no to other grandiose yet reductionist stereotypes typical of the Bush era which sorted the world into a pile of good guys and a pile of bad guys.

Obama also soundly condemned the trendy pseudo-intellectual practice of professionalized Islam-hating masquerading as national security. He not only acknowledged that it was now part of his job to fight negative stereotypes of Islam, as well as negative stereotypes of the West, but he also had the moral courage to do something that through the agonizing years of colonialism, imperialism, and Western interventionism Muslims have rarely had the privilege of observing a Western leader do: admit to having unlawfully overthrown a legitimate and popular government in a Muslim country (President Musaddaq in Iran).

So it is no surprise that today, all over the Arab media, Arabs and Muslims are excited that Obama openly expressed respect for their faith and culture. After all, as many scholars have pointed out, one of the main grievances of Muslims in the age of modernity is the denial of liberty and dignity.

But the same media outlets that express such high approbation and admiration for Obama are also expressing severe anxiety and skepticism about whether this speech heralds the dawn of a new age or is just a new face for the same old western talk-a-lot, do-little that Muslims have become all too accustomed to since colonialism.

Paradoxes and inconsistencies have been the earmark of the modern age for Muslims—a world of smoke and mirrors. Indeed, the history of modern Muslim nations can be summed up in a dramatic narrative of competing promises by competing superpowers to competing regional powers, and the end result is people with tragic let-downs and broken dreams.

For instance, although President Obama delivered a wonderful speech about new beginnings, human rights, and mutual respect, it doesn’t change the fact that on the way to Egypt he first stopped in Saudi Arabia, the motherland of Wahhabism, the most puritanical, intolerant, and oppressive Muslim state. It leaves one wondering, was President Obama getting their approval? Was he assuring them not to feel threatened by his speech about human rights and the rights of women to equality?

Reminiscent of visits to Egypt by Presidents Nixon and Carter in the past, President Obama’s trip to Cairo was preceded by mass arrests and vast human rights abuses. One of the most influential intellectual leftist critics, Qamdil, disappeared and is believed to have been murdered by security forces. Notably, the Egyptian government’s targeting of dissidents was not limited to those who would be critical of President Obama’s visit to Egypt but actually included many Islamists known for their positive outlook towards the West.

Worst of all, the choice of Egypt instead of Malaysia or Indonesia, for instance, was quite curious. Hosni Mubarak is one of the most detested despots in the Middle East, not just because he has been in power for 28 years, at the very high cost of thousands of opponents tortured, imprisoned, and killed, but more so because many Arabs and Muslims consider him to be a direct partner in the Israeli genocide in Gaza. Mubarak’s government helped and continues to help enforce the embargo even against humanitarian aid to Gaza and has even prevented human rights investigators from documenting war crimes that have taken place in the territory.

Most lay Egyptians believe Mubarak is zealously serving American and Israeli interests because he is agonizingly trying to ensure that the United States will back up his son, Gamal Mubarak, an extremely unpopular, corrupt, Mafioso-type figure, in his bid to inherit the throne. The real policy disaster is that most mainstream Egyptians and, indeed, Arabs believe Obama’s choice of Egypt as the place from which to address the Muslim world is part of a classic smoke and mirrors deal to reward the ailing dictator for a job well done by guaranteeing that his son will inherit Egypt to continue more of the same.

  • Dan

    thanks for gathering these comments – I agreed with most of the points made – especially Yvonne Haddad’s analysis.

  • A-K Roth

    Interesting and welcome reactions, most of them. But Yvonne Haddad’s analysis raised a few flags:
    “…no reference to the peeves of the perpetrators who justified their deed as avenging the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent children in Iraq…” Haddad wants to justify 9/11?

    “…failed to include among the innocents the 1400 Palestinians recently killed in Gaza…” Haddad sees violent extremists such as Hamas fighters as innocents?

    “…he failed to note that all settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law…”
    Is that so? Not everyone agrees. Some may be illegal while others may not be.

    Omid Safi: “…Many Muslims were offended that there was no mention of the recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza…”
    To go into Israels war against Hamas in Gaza would have necessitated delving into Hamas’ actions that started the war and into Hamas’ crimes against International Humnanitarian Law directed at its own people as well.

    I think everyone knows what Obama means by the term “violent extremists”. He gave notice but in a non-confrontational way.

    Safi: “…Obama’s words were historic, brilliant, almost perfect. Now comes the hard part of following up on the beautiful intentions and the inclusive words: righteous and courageous action that brings all those of good will together…”

    Agree strongly.

  • Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi

    As President Obama was speaking in Cairo, I was returning from Damascus, where the epically titled ‘The Message of Peace in Islam’ international conference was just ending. Whilst to its credit the British Foreign Office had, in partnership with the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf, brought together hundreds of British and Arab interlocutors, a subject as large and vague as ‘peace’ within Islam was inevitably going to be a little contrived and unfocused. The eminent Muftis talked the talk but lacked the ability to go beyond petty defensive posturing and actually engage. The “great tension” that Obama was speaking about in Cairo was palpable in Damascus – this was a different audience.

    We endured the usual, predictable rants by angry old men who raved about the evil of the Crusades, the evil of American hegemony, the evil of Zionist conspiracies, and negative reporting by an evil Western media. There was precious little mention of evil Muslims. The incapability of internalization, even to some minor degree, the approach of ‘the other’ was starkly apparent as cleric after cleric began to sing from some tattered hymn sheet of victimhood and despair. It is an attitude, a demeanour, that many Muslims are themselves tired of. Talking up the extremism of the West conveniently carpets over the extremism in parts of ‘Dar al-Islam’, and if there is one thing that Obama’s speech, not many miles away, ought to have highlighted, it is the complacency of Muslim societies themselves to recognize and deal with the elephants in their room.

    Obama, unintentionally perhaps, spoke of America and Islam in terms of an enduring dichotomy which in and of itself presupposes a relationship that has to be understood in terms of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Yet, as I learned in Damascus, there is no America just as there is no Islam; there are merely ‘little americas’ and ‘little islams’, where shared ideals and a sense of common purpose often emerge not between governments but among civil societies. President Obama’s achievement in Cairo, and perhaps the potential achievement of Damascus also, was the creation of a connection between two ideological divides. In an ideal scenario, this should now lead to a new understanding of Islam and Muslims among the wider American public, as well as a new understanding of America and Americans among a Muslim public too. In a perfect world, these brave new words ought now to manifest themselves into a brave new world.

    Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi, The BrItslam Partnership