- June 5, 2009
OBAMA IN THE MUSLIM WORLD
He came with goodwill and pretty sentences, but the question kept echoing: Were they enough?
President Obama”s much-anticipated speech Thursday to the Muslim world sought to dissolve the mistrust between Islam and the West by highlighting his personal appeal as he called for an end to intolerance and violence and a move toward a shared future. It was a carefully textured blend of history, the president”s experience with Islam and the need to quell religious extremism.
The 55-minute address at Cairo University was short on policy details. What it lacked in PowerPoint specificity, the speech made up for by linking Obama”s story — the Christian son of an African Muslim father — with his administration”s goals of ending the Arab-Israeli crisis, sitting with Iran at the negotiating table and calling on Muslims to reject the fanatical voices of Osama bin Laden and others.
Few world leaders today can match Obama”s eloquence and charisma, and it was clear that the president wanted the world”s 1.5 billion Muslims to see America through the prism of his enormously popular image. The words were a start, but the question here remains: Is Obama the face of genuine change in U.S. foreign policy or will he merely offer a sparkle of promise before he is overwhelmed by troubles from the bombed alleys of the Gaza Strip to the mountains of Afghanistan?
The address did not answer that; it didn”t provide enough concrete solutions to wipe away doubt. It did suggest, however, that the president is a conciliator, not a warrior, and that America, especially in Iraq, had made mistakes. Saving face is a cherished Arab virtue, and a man who can keep face while listing his mistakes is respected.
Obama, with an eye to how his remarks would play among conservatives in Washington, emphasized that the United States would “relentlessly confront” extremists and urged Muslims to tame the violent minority and set aside the “crude stereotype” of America.
The president was attempting to insinuate himself into the larger debate within Islam — not among militants, who won”t be swayed by an appeal from an American president, but between mainstream conservative and moderate Muslim voices looking to keep their faith but also engage the secular West.
“No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point,” Obama said. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another and to seek common ground.”
That was the message. It began with Obama greeting the crowd with assalamu alaikum, or “peace be upon you,” and was bolstered by weaving in quotes from the Koran. And the speech was delivered the way you introduce yourself here to neighbors as a newcomer to town: explaining where you”re from, your passions, your dreams, but not delving too deeply into prickly things. That unveiling comes later, during ensuing weeks, months and years.
But many in this region want deeds and progress much sooner, and believe that the speech was more of a balancing act than an aggressive agenda.
“He”s speaking in the right direction, but we need to see what follows,” said Ibrahim Hudaiby, a blogger and member of Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement. “It”s time for action. . . . The devil is in the details.”
Obama spoke fervently about the creation of a Palestinian state, while also stressing that the U.S.-Israeli bond was unbreakable. This was the topic many Arab Muslims had waited for, and Obama, as in much of the speech, turned to history: how it resonated, but how the world must not be bound by it.
He said that denying the existence of the Holocaust, as some of Israel”s enemies have done, is “baseless, it is ignorant and it is hateful.” But he quickly noted that “it is also undeniable” that the Palestinians have suffered pain and indignities in their quest for a homeland. He again firmly called for a halt to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but he said Palestinians should follow the course of nonviolent protest, such as practiced by blacks in the United States and South Africa.
His remarks on expanding democracy drew applause from the audience, but they were couched in too much diplomacy for Egyptian activists and dissidents whose voices have been squelched for nearly 28 years by Obama”s host, President Hosni Mubarak. Some of them had criticized Obama”s visit here as an endorsement of an autocratic regime that has imprisoned thousands of opponents.
Obama did not mention any country or Arab leader by name when he declared that government must be run with “a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make a true democracy.”
The tenor of his address was not to point blame — except at extremists — but to end animosities between Islam and the West and to start anew. It highlighted his gifts as an orator, but left open the question of how successful a statesmen he may become.
“We have the power to make the world we seek,” he said, “but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.”
He then quoted from the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible.
But Obama will need to recite more than holy text to convince his audience that his words will be followed by change.