- June 13, 2009
Obama’s speech, words need action
The speech in Cairo of President Barack Hussein Obama was watched with keen interest by over one and a half billion people around the world. Obama’s eulogistic comments for Islam and quotations from the Holy Qur’an were very well taken in the Muslim countries. But back home some commentators and analysts criticized him for sounding like a spokesman of the Muslims, apologetic about US policies and on his stance on Palestine.
President Obama did not shy away from pressing Israeli government, insisting that the construction of settlements must stop, the existence of a Palestinian state cannot be denied, and that the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. Most significant was his policy statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he categorically supported establishment of a two-nation state and strong opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. He however made no mention of the status of Jerusalem but said that it was a holy and revered place for the three Abrahamic religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims, indicating that Israel will have to accept and accommodate this reality. If President Obama is really able to convince Israel to accept a two-state solution, withdraw to 1967 borders and stop building settlements then it would dramatically transform the relationship between the US and the Muslim world .
President Obama’s acknowledgement of Hamas being representative of a section of Palestinian people was a major departure from the Bush administration policy of branding them as terrorists. There were clear indications that his administration would be more equitable and retain a balance in its relations between Israel and Palestinians. Doubts however linger in the minds of many if Obama would be able to implement this new policy on Middle East in view of the hard line attitude adopted by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and the strong pro-Israeli lobby that exists in the United States. The Israelis are never amused whenever a balance is exercised while dealing with the Jewish state and Palestine. The Israeli government issued a statement saying that it hoped the speech would mark the “opening of a new era,” but the statement made no mention of Obama’s demand for a freeze on Jewish settlements or his use of the word “occupation” to refer to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is reported to be preparing for a rebuttal Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in advance of Obama’s remarks that “beautiful speeches” cannot change the hard feelings toward the United States. Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa “have witnessed aggressive actions by America” for a long time, he said, and they “hate America from the bottom of their heart.” In Lebanon, a Hezbollah official dismissed the speech as a “sermon,” while a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt characterized it as “public relations” with little substance. “President Obama wants to radically transform this relationship and develop a better understanding with the Muslim world. Having been born to a Muslim father and lived in Muslim countries and the goodwill he enjoys among them he clearly considers himself better equipped to open a new chapter in their relationship. The speech in Cairo was a deliberate attempt and an initiation of a process of reconciliation. Hi clear announcement without mincing words that US is not at war with Islam but is fighting the militants who are killing innocent civilians was meant to give clarity to the new policy and to gain confidence of the Muslims. President Obama’s speech was a good beginning to improve the American image in the Muslim world which had got used to see the American administration during the last several years as a bullying power. The world saw the USA using brute force and threats to achieve its national objectives punctuated by expressions of ‘shock and awe’. Recognizing common humanity is only the beginning of the task. Words alone cannot solve multifarious problems the world is facing. Therefore words have to be matched by deeds. These good intentions will be met if bold actions by the US are taken fully understanding challenges otherwise lack of trust between the US and the Muslim world would continue to remain if not further eroded.
The history of tense relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and USA is as old as the departure from the throne of Shahanshah Reza Shah Pahlavi. The relations reached the lowest ebb when American embassy staff in Tehran was taken hostage for 444 days causing pain and anguish in the USA. Then a failed attempt to rescue hostages by the Carter administration bolstered the Iranians but it caused dismay in the USA. The development of Iranian nuclear program is now the main irritant between the country’s relations with the west who are not convinced the program is meant for energy requirements of a country which is fabulously rich in oil resources. In contrast to Bush administration, President Obama has offered talks to Iran with any preconditions to discuss contentious issues. Not only is that he the first US President to admit that his country played a role in overthrow of government of Dr.Mohammad Mosaddeq in early fifties. The American President conceded the right of any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iranian reaction so far has not been categorical but it might come after the presidential election in Iran.
All in all President Obama’s speech in Cairo was well-received by most of his target Muslim audience. According to a columnist the general response sums up the nature of the orator — Mr. Obama’s promised “new beginning” between Islam and America sounds great but lacks substance. Greeting the audience with the Arabic “Assalaamu alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) “made people quite emotional,” and Mr. Obama quoted verses from the holy Koran “quite expertly, playing his cards quite well. But what is taking place on the ground? The massacre in Afghanistan, Palestine Iraq Pakistan is still going on. Mention of Kashmir dispute was conspicuously absent .Much of the policy substance of the speech was similar if not identical to George W. Bush administration policies. The novelty was not the message, but the messenger. The bottom line is that the Muslim world is now willing to listen to proposed solutions to the problems Mr. Obama mentioned, and the onus is on the United States to provide them. Pakistanis did not have to scratch their heads to decipher as to what was for them in the speech. There was none except reiteration of American aid package to Pakistan and bracketing it with Afghanistan in efforts to fight against terrorists. Most of the Pakistanis would have been happy if any reference was made to Kashmir dispute between two nuclear powers. Continued unsettlement of this dispute has the potential of turning the region into a serious flash point.
Even in the absence of mention of Kashmir, President Zardari was so much delighted to hear the speech that he at once sent message felicitations to the US President. No wonder he might have entertained the idea of personally going to Washington to express his profound compliments.