On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter).

  • Framing: The speech included seven direct references to or uses of Muslim lore/scripture or custom; these were well placed rhetorically and he will win points for this from within Muslim communities and at home. He may also catch flak in the US from the right, but at this point, such criticism is of less and less importance. This helped to make the speech one of outreach, speaking to Muslims on “their” own terms, while also drawing on common Abrahamic themes aimed at reminding Westerners and those in the region that they share common civilizational roots. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the speech and its ability to influence perceptions of the president and the United States. Furthermore, Obama placed the story of the modern world in the context of colonialism and globalization: this showed many that the president carries a greater capacity for empathy than many in the developed world. That his words on terrorism mentioned Islam as a part of peace making and not as a source of the problem between the West and the Muslim world is also a point of departure from much of the discourse in the US, even today. The Cairo speech shows a more clear understanding of terrorism as a methodology and not an ideology than anything said during the Bush administration. It also displays a broader geopolitical understanding and socialization than would have been the case if it had been delivered by some other contingency or a year ago. And it was clear to whom the president was speaking at practically every juncture.
  • American Muslims: Obama presented nothing new with respect to American Muslims and to say that “Islam is a part of America” is nothing that was not said during the previous administration. His references to American Muslims was at worst disingenuous and at best half informed. As is too often the case (and was especially the case at points during the last administration), American Muslims were treated as if they were not simply American, contextualized within the “Muslim world” and not the United States: it is as if Obama could not speak to them as Americans, but only as foreigners. This was perhaps the most shallow and disappointing point in the speech. The shameless use of the American Muslim experience without apparent regard to the real issues facing the community (beyond limitations on zakat, such as local resistance to the construction of mosques, discrimination in the work place and so on) has done was the US government too often does to Western Muslims: treating them as a separate piece of the wider national project and not as Americans. This president who refuses to be seen with American Muslims holds up a community he ignores at home as a point of pride: how can the president be proud of or speak of a community he has for years pretended was either cancerous or non-existent? Obama would do well to re-direct the discourse on American Muslims inwards, speak to American Muslims as Americans and not as Muslims or a foreign policy talking point or bargaining chip in world politics. He should tell Americans that Islam is a part of America, because many Americans are just as ignorant as outsiders of the history and nature of the Muslim community in the US and it is from these people (their fellow Americans) that American Muslims interact with daily and whose sentiments and actions render their businesses and homes under assault or in harmony. It should be telling to those interested that this president will tell foreigners (be they Muslims or not) that Islam is a part of America before he is willing to tell Americans this. He leaves much to be desired on all fronts with respect to American Muslims. Let us not forget that months before the Patriot Act and 9/11 the last American president made many promises to the Muslims who voted for him and canvased for him. A name like Hussein and Assalamu Aleikum should not give anyone cause to believe this president or any one else will be more reasonable than others. The reactions of American Muslims have been receptive and generally positive, those who speak to the press (as they did during the campaign) have been upbeat, as Obama is wildly popular among young American Muslims for obvious reasons (both of youth of heritage, however misguided or legitimate those maybe) and it is usually younger Muslims who are eager to speak to the newsmedia. But of course there is nuance.
  • Palestine: Obama spoke of “Palestine”, not “Palestinians”: this in itself is a positive indicator of a change in mentality towards the conflict in Palestine. The notion of Palestine as totally legitimate entity, and not a collection of people whose right to nationhood is questionable, is in strong contrast to the attitudes that were powerful during the last administration. This was perhaps a jab at the current Israeli leadership (whose posture is as offensive as it is daft), and to those at home whose real commitment to a two state solution is debatable. Though in good taste among westerners and others in power, calling on Palestinians to set down their arms without any guarantee of their security from Israel while alluding to “peaceful” resistance movements in South Africa and South Asia is both ahistorical and naive. (How easily Westerners forget the ANC’s paramilitary training and operations!) Even worse it is cruel (to deny any people their right to struggle, armed or otherwise). This underlines continuity in the US commitment to Israel while undercutting the previous signal that the Palestinian cause is as legitimate as any other national liberation movement. Having said that the settlements are unacceptable is a step in a direction towards maintaining a policy that has been in place for many years against settlement activity. Concrete measures against this “unacceptable” Israeli conduct should have been mentioned, but such is the power of American opinion and the special relationship. Other things could have been mentioned that would be of greater significance but that they were not shows that there will be continuity to a wide degree. However, the comparison of the Palestinian plight to that of African Americans, black South Africans and other historic liberation struggles that are now deemed to have been on the “right side” of history marks a change in the way the US talks about the conflict (as one in which actual oppression is taking place). But whether the Palestinians have the right to struggle against this oppression is unclear, which means that the US policy against their liberation and in favor of Israel will remain effectively the same. This much should be obvious, though. The president’s nod to the displacement of the Palestinians was piecemeal compared to his long breath on the history of Jewish oppression, and was phrased in the blandest and vaguest of terms. In this we see only a change in speech, with little evidence pointing towards actual changes in policy.
  • Technical: Encouraging Muslim students to take internships and to study in the US: excellent for the production of knowledge; encourages the brain-drain that is pervasive in the Third World, stands to benefit the US more than anyone else. This is the veiled realism to which Brooks refers in his reasoned commentary on the speech. The utility of such efforts is reciprocal, but also have draw backs for the “less advanced” societies.
  • Iran: To touch briefly on this part of the speech is to say that it was done as well as it possibly could have been. Obama acknowledged the reality of America’s history with Iran from a position of strength and respect. This has been one of the strongest points in the administration’s diplomacy and was on full display in Cairo.
  • Minority Rights: The president was broad and sweeping, with deliberate and politically opportune references to the Maronites and Copts. The reference to France’s oppressive headscarf policy and the tendency in some parts of western Europe (e.g. the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland) to hide anti-Muslim bigotry under the “pretense of liberalism” is also a sign of a well calibrated scope and a keen awareness of the dangers posed by the way too many European allies treat and deal with their Muslim communities. More might be desired on the US Muslim front as is mentioned above, but such is the status of the less popular minorities in any society.

The speech carried both substance and elegance. It will be widely praised and cited in the future as a major event in the “post-9/11” period and in America’s relationship with the Muslim world; it will also perhaps be a major landmark in the history of the American Muslim community. It’s high rhetoric, imploring young people to “reimagine the world, to remake this world,” and towards “a faith in other people,” delivered on the back of Abrahamic verses is Kennedy-esque, perhaps consciously so, but nevertheless calling the masses towards what is surely unattainable — all such language must either be dismissed or looked upon with heavy skepticism, as legions conspire to spoil such grand aspirations, for fragmentation and indecision are as  fundamental to human societies as collaboration and synergism. But it is the job of men like President Obama’s to help to check the tendency towards the primitive and the Cairo speech was important in that work. Nevertheless, it would be nothing but naive to expect that the most attractive elements of the speech are intended to have any purpose other than to raise false hopes — they are meant to act like diversions — and sympathy for policies that Muslims already find unfortunate and that will continue on as they have. Though it may have been framed like a sermon, it was as crude a political speech as any other.

Having spoken to Egyptians about the speech, both on the way to the event (at that point most seemed irritated that Obama’s beefed up security was causing them hassles in traffic and travel) and afterwards, there are two sense I have observed: One is an almost euphoric optimism, present among many highly educated people, some of the government workers and a few activist sorts. These will toss up a thumbs up happy grin and say “Obama!” to Americans or will speak to their delight at his poise and empathy. At one of Cairo’s hippest nightclubs one hears clips from the speech integrated into bumping electronica — “I-I-I-I’ve come to Cairo to seek a new beginning-a new beginning.” The other is a jaded pessimism, dismissing the speech as “just talk,” impatience and a demand that something be done rather than said. Within this, one also hears the grumbles of democracy activists who fear abandonment under the new realism of this administration welcomed on this blog but not without real consequences for real people in very real ways. Though Obama spoke to “Muslims,” one opposition activist told me, he did so to support Mubarek which is to say clearly that his priorities are not with “those here” (pointing around him). This is the more dominant attitude. In most official circles in the Arab world the speech has been well received, and in few places (official or otherwise) there is little hostility towards it. It has accomplished it goal as of now. But as has been written and said before: now we await action. Relative to the Bush-era, the American position is thankfully (for some) back to reality.


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