- June 3, 2009
Obama in the Muslim World
Barack Obama”s visit may influence the future of this part of the world. Will he use this historic opportunity to say that the world we shape for our children should be one of democracy, justice and peace, or will he favor a world of oppression, injustice and suffering by clinging to oppressive regimes and aggressive hard-liners?
Every day Obama confronts the challenges of the global economic crisis and the deteriorating situations in Gaza, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He must know that reports of human rights abuses or assaults on democracy are as serious as those warning of front-line skirmishes. In fact, they are related; as leaders abandon the values of justice and liberty, they set the stage for conflict.
Will Obama carry his message of change to this region? Will he confirm his commitment to democracy, or will he appease dictators and aggressors? Will he hold fast to his ideals, and continue to tell oppressive regimes that they are marching on the wrong side of history, or will he fall victim to expediency and short-term pragmatism? Will Obama vow a true commitment to solving the Palestinian problem or will he endorse endless rounds of fruitless negotiations? Will Obama work to strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity, or will he declare a bankruptcy of hope?
We in the El Ghad Party refuse to believe that these great values are bankrupt. We refuse to believe that freedom, democracy, justice and prosperity are exclusively Western products. We refuse to believe that some of us are more equal than others. We believe that freedom is as natural to every man and woman in Cairo as it is in Washington, London or Gaza.
When justice and democracy are traded for short-term political gains, we lay the bricks for a world of oppression, tyranny and conflict. Sticking to our ideals today will lead to security and prosperity. Selling out these ideals places our future in the hands of tyrants, dictators and war-mongers, unfortunately guaranteeing future loss of human life.
Ziegler Distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; co-author of “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East”
I hope President Obama asks Arab and Muslim societies to look inward.
Candor requires acknowledging that too many Arab states have exploited the Arab-Israeli conflict for domestic purposes. These regimes have used the conflict to deflect criticism of their failings on domestic issues — failings that could threaten their grasp on power. Too often Arab leaders justify the lack of political or economic reform by citing their preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict. By so doing, they make others responsible for the solutions. Taken together, instead of producing a culture of responsibility, as President Obama has called for at home, they perpetuate a culture of victimhood.
Arab states need to do their share to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although some Arabs say they need to deal with Israel because it is a fact, they never say they should do so because Israel is a legitimate state. If the Arab world wants the United States to become more engaged in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, it needs to do more than present a back-loaded Arab Peace Initiative. I hope Obama says to them: every step that Israel takes toward the Palestinians must be met with an Arab step to integrate Israel into the Middle East.
Vice president, foreign and defense policy studies, at the American Enterprise Institute
It”s a shame that President Obama chose Egypt, home to an aging autocrat who embodies the antithesis of hope and change, as the venue for this speech. And it”s a mistake to persist in lumping one of the most diverse groups of people into the catch-all “Muslim world,” as if a shared religion was the most important defining attribute. Though it seems clear that Cairo was chosen because Egypt”s government has made peace with Israel and is taking a harder line on Iran and its proxies, it”s a choice that underscores everything that has always been wrong with American Middle East policy: one-stop policy shopping with local dictators.
By most accounts, this speech, at its core, will be about persuading the governments of the region to do something — in the case of Iran, to accept Obama”s blandishments; Syria, to reject Iran; Palestine, to make sacrifices for peace. But these governments are the problem, not the solution. Instead of addressing governments, Obama should focus on the people of the Arab and Persian Middle East — Sunni, Shiite and Christian — whose governments fail to represent them every day, in every way. They may (and do) tell pollsters that their greatest angst is that there is no state of Palestine, but that is because they cannot tell anyone that it is in their own lack of freedom, opportunity or hope.
STEVEN A. COOK
Senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
For the Cairo speech to be successful, President Obama will need to include three elements in addition to the themes of respect and tolerance for Islam, Muslims and Arabs that he has consistently emphasized since his inauguration: First, he will have to make a strong statement about the Arab-Israeli conflict and especially acknowledge that Palestinian claims for justice and statehood are legitimate as well as consistent with American interests. Second, Obama should make clear that he rejects those voices that claim Muslims are not ready for democracy. It will not be lost on anyone that the president is putting Arab leaders on notice that democratic change remains on Washington”s agenda, though he does not seek to impose it at the end of a tank. Finally, Obama must emphasize that by closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, rescinding the previous administration”s legal rationale for the use of torture and restoring the balance between the branches of government, the United States is returning to its ideals. This will reaffirm for many Muslims that America is a society built on the deeply attractive principles of equality, freedom and the rule of law.
Palestinian journalist; former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University
Muslims and Arabs would like to hear a lot from President Obama, starting with Palestine, Iraq and the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. While foreign policy is crucial, a sincere show of respect and attempt to rebuild trust are more important.
Palestine has become the litmus test for U.S. foreign policy because it has exposed U.S. hypocrisy. Examples of the double standard include U.S. bias toward Israel while it claims to be an honest broker, its push for “democracy” while rejecting the results of Palestinian elections, and its silence on Israeli nuclear weapons while blasting Iranian nuclear efforts.
There are huge expectations for Obama. Arabs and Muslims appreciate and respect American values of democracy and human rights, but the disreputable actions of U.S. soldiers, diplomats and civil servants have led many to question the U.S. commitment to its stated values. Typical references to the Judeo-Christian heritage need to be replaced by an approach appealing to universal values based on human rights, self-determination, and opposition to occupation and dictatorships. Obama needs to find a way to apologize for the past and to convince people that he is planning to change course. No one expects the U.S. president to totally change U.S. policy, but people will welcome efforts to turn a new page based on fairness and trust.
Obama could weaken the accusations of U.S. double standards and help dispel the false connection between Islam and terrorism — as well as demonstrating a reason to trust an American president — by establishing low-level negotiations with the elected members of the Palestinian legislature who ran on the reform-and-change bloc headed by Ismail Haniyeh. Talking to the political wing of Hamas is no different than talking to the leaders of Iran, which Obama promised to do while campaigning.
TAMARA COFMAN WITTES
Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution”s Saban Center for Middle East Policy
President Obama”s speech must redefine how Muslim audiences view America”s role in their lives. While our strength — and our interests — are not things for which to apologize, we benefit from being seen as a positive influence. The appeal of Islamist radicalism lies in its revolutionary resistance to the stagnation and suffering in many Muslim societies. Countering that ideology requires a positive vision in which pluralism and peace bring tangible benefits.
If America”s new engagement is to help build a positive future for the peoples of the Muslim world, the president must address the domestic political and economic context in which nearly all Arabs and many other Muslims live — and the ways in which this deprives them of the rights to change their governments, express themselves freely or improve their standard of living. Obama must embrace the aspirations of the overwhelmingly young Muslim public for the freedom and opportunity to shape their own future.
In building a partnership with Muslims around the world, I hope Obama will say that: A government”s role is to give our young people the foundations they need to realize their dreams, and the ability to hold us accountable for what we deliver. Most important, we must give them our trust — the freedom to make their own choices and to help determine our future.
U.S. ambassador to Israel, 1995-97 and 2000-01; co-convenor of the Brookings Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations; director of Brookings” Saban Center
First, President Obama needs to recognize the diversity among those he is addressing. Most Muslims are not Arabs and many do not want to be associated with the ills that afflict that troubled part of their world.
What they do share, however, is a sense of humiliation at the hands of the West. The plight of Palestinians resonates across the Muslim world because it touches that nerve. A sincere commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help soothe the neuralgia.
Further, respect for Muslims” human aspirations and a commitment to upholding their human rights go hand in hand. Acknowledging our failings in this respect can go a long way toward getting them to face up to their own.
Finally, offering a partnership in charting a new, more positive course in relations will resonate. But the president needs to be clear that we will treat them as equals if they will join us in promoting the free flow of ideas, building knowledge societies and giving hope to youth.
DAVID POLLOCK AND CURTIS CANNON
David Pollock is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of “Slippery Polls: Uses and Abuses of Opinion Surveys From Arab States.” Curtis Cannon is a research assistant at the institute.
President Obama”s speech is being heralded as another harbinger of improved relations between the United States and the “Arab world.” Indeed, according to the handful of polls available around the region, America”s overall approval rating in various Arab countries plummeted to the teens during the Bush administration. By contrast, in recent Zogby and IPSOS polls, half or more in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (but not in Egypt or Lebanon) agreed that “the Obama administration will bring positive change to U.S.-Arab relations.” But does this matter?
In spite of what the Arab polls say, the United States has not been nearly as negatively affected by its poor image as is commonly supposed. Since 2003, the number of protests with any reported anti-American slant has slowed to a trickle. The number of Arab citizens granted visas to visit the United States has been steadily increasing since 2003. U.S. exports to Arab countries have boomed, from $16.3 billion in 2000 to $51.8 billion in 2008. And Arab governments have been increasingly cooperative with the United States over the past five years.
It would be nice if more Arabs liked the United States. But as Obama drafts his speech, he should be mindful that, of the two pillars for U.S.-Muslim relations proposed in his speeches so far, the record demonstrates that “mutual interests” clearly matter much more than “mutual respect.”
AARON DAVID MILLER
Public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; former Arab-Israeli peace negotiator for the State Department
Instead of giving another “why America respects the Arab and Muslim world” speech, President Obama should say something significant about Arab-Israeli peace and how he intends to get there.
With a speech coming on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the 1967 Arab war with Israel, the Cairo venue gives the president a chance to break the icons and illusions that flowed from that conflict. He must tell Arab regimes to stop their state-media-sponsored anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric, to take concrete steps to reach out to Israel now, and to stop using the Arab-Israeli issue as an excuse to block reform of their dysfunctional societies.
To the Israelis, he must make clear that peace, security and Israel”s viability as a democratic Jewish state cannot be reconciled by keeping the West Bank. Without laying out a detailed peace plan, the president must talk about how only a two-state solution, based on the June 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital of two states, can hold out any hope of ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But a speech without a strategy and the political will to back it up will fail. If the president is serious about pushing the Israelis to stop settlements and pressing the Arabs to normalize, then let him be bold in Cairo. If he isn”t, he should give another “America respects the Arab-Muslim world” speech and spare America another peace process failure.
Transcript: Obama’s speech in Cairo (PDF)
Transcript: Obama’s speech in Cairo (PDF)