Above the Fold: The Speech Heard 'Round the World
Obama’s message to Cairo focuses on our common humanity
“America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
“I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
—Barack Hussein Obama, Cairo, June 4, 2009
President Obama delivered the greatest speech of his presidency in Egypt yesterday, the best one he has given since he rescued his presidential campaign last year, by dissecting the issues of race which have fractured America since its founding.
A large part of the power of both speeches lies in Obama’s willingness to articulate facts that have previously been treated as taboos, such as America’s role “in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government,” which he mentioned in Cairo yesterday. The president also made a revolutionary pledge to obliterate the difference between America’s public stands and its private proddings:
America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.
What were seen as his greatest liabilities when Obama was a candidate—a Muslim father, Muslim schooling in Indonesia, and the middle name of “Hussein”—now clearly give him the chance to be the most credible leader of the free world America has ever placed in the White House.
The speech was broadcast simultaneously around the world (only Iran tried to jam satellite transmission of it), and in Pakistan it was seen live with Urdu subtitles on TV screens throughout the country. By mid-afternoon Friday, it was available on the White House Web site in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. (Translations into Dari, Hebrew, and Malay are, as of this writing, still ‘in progress’; oddly, currently not included among the fourteen language options is a Spanish version.)
American journalists tended to focus on whatever there was in the speech that made right-wing Israelis unhappy, including this refreshingly forthright declaration: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” But around the world the speech was recognized as an extraordinary effort to extract the humanity from three of the world’s great religions, to emphasize our common values instead of our constant conflicts.
The reaction of Hamas depended entirely on where you read about it. In The New York Times, “Ahmed Youssef, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government, criticized the speech for not going far enough on Palestinian issues. ‘He points to the right of Israel to exist, but what about the refugees and their right of return?’”
But in Le Monde, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum saw “tangible change” in the president’s speech as well as “some contradictions”: “It’s a speech that plays on feelings and is filled with civility, which makes us believe he is trying to enhance America’s image in the world.”
And on the Web site of the Arab cable news network Al Jazeera, Hamas was downright cordial towards Obama: “Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech.’ About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognize another. But the message that America is not a threat to the Muslim world is a good signal, he said.”
Yousuf’s comparison was utterly apt. When Obama called upon the Palestinians to emulate American blacks because “it was not violence that won full and equal rights; it was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding,” he was of course echoing King’s commitment to Gandhi’s nonviolence.
The single best analysis FCP saw anywhere was by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. Under the headline, “Barack Obama in Cairo: the speech no other president could make,” Freedland wrote that Obama had given “a speech that demonstrated not only his trademark eloquence but also the sheer ambition of his purpose—nothing less than bridging the divide between Islam and the west…” Freedland continued:
…the thread that ran through every paragraph was a simple but radical idea: respect for the Arab and Muslim world. It was there in Obama’s use of the traditional Muslim greeting, met with cheering applause: assalamu alaykum. There, too, in his quotations from “the holy Qur’an”—pronouncing the word the way his Cairo audience would pronounce it.
“I know civilisation’s debt to Islam,” he declared, before listing a Muslim record of achievement that stretched from algebra to poetry.
All of this was a world away from George W Bush, who was unable to address Muslims in a tone that was not bellicose or patronizing. If Bush had said the same words, they would have sounded phoney. But Obama had the credibility of his own life story: the Muslims in his father’s family, the childhood years in Indonesia. What had threatened to be a liability for Barack Hussein Obama in the 2008 election campaign was deployed as an asset.
But it went deeper than flattery about the great Islamic past. He showed understanding, if not always acceptance, of what one might call the Arab and Muslim narrative.”
Finally, for his peroration, Obama borrowed from three of the holiest books in the world:
“The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Then, with his final sentence, he appealed to the humanity which is the most admirable part of all three religions:
“The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”