Obama’s Egypt Speech: What He Should Say to the Muslim World

On June 4, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver what is being billed as a “major speech to the Muslim world” in Cairo, Egypt. The speech comes at a particularly tense moment in the relationship between the United States and the world’s approximately 1.3 billion Muslims, as the latter wait to see how the President will move forward on his efforts to close down Guantanamo Bay, bring the Iraq War to an end, shift our national security focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.

To provide context for this event, the Saban Center at Brookings’ Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World has asked leading experts and policy-makers from the United States and the Muslim world to submit commentary on what they hope to hear from President Obama’s speech. The outcome is an interesting glimpse into the diverse set of responses currently being considered by some of the world’s preeminent thought leaders.

For more commentary on Obama’s speech to the Muslim World, other than what is listed below, go to The Washington Post’s On Faith page.


Khalil al-Anani
Senior Fellow at Al-ahram Foundation and Expert on Middle East politics

Obama’s speech at Cairo University will be a turning point in the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. After eight years of clash and misunderstanding, both parties need a break to re-think their relationship with each other.

As an Egyptian, I’d like to thank president Obama for choosing Cairo to reach out to the Muslim world. Although currently there is a wave of regressive policies, Egypt will remain the core of the Arab and Muslim world.

During the last eight years, Arabs and Muslims suffered from the painful policies of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative colleagues. Nevertheless, they believe that Obama can fix past mistakes and reshape the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. Many Arab youth believe that Obama has the ability to restore the American image in the Muslim world. Muslim families are looking for a hopeful future to their kids and children and this will not happen without ending the confrontation between civilizations.

Honestly, Muslims don’t need smooth rhetoric from Obama, rather they seek tangible actions that can change the realties on the ground.

Many Arabs and Muslims want to know about Obama’s vision towards issues like the Arab – Israel conflict, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Afghanistan. They are very interested to see how the Obama administration will approach the conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Muslims and Arabs are looking for the following:

  • Changing the image of Muslims in the American mind and media.
  • Restoring the American role in the Arab – Israeli Conflict as a neutral and objective mediator.
  • Adding the fourth “D” for democracy to your global strategy which currently includes diplomacy, defense, and development. Democracy promotion in the Muslim World should be an American strategic interest.
  • Engaging with Moderate Islamists.
  • Burying the idea of a “Clash of Civilizations”.


Tariq Fatemi
Foreign Policy and Defense Analyst

There has been tremendous interest and excitement, especially in the Muslim world, about President Obama’s forthcoming address. The debate has centered on both its substance and its form, with some questioning whether making the address from the capital city of the region’s foremost autocrat, was not sending the wrong signal. I have no problem with the choice of Cairo, for after all Egypt has been the link between three important circles, being an influential member-state of the Islamic, the Arab and the African groups.

This makes it even more essential that the address be to the entire Muslim world, rather than to the Arabs alone. Obama must not use the occasion to dwell on details of his Arab-Israeli peace settlement, or try to create a new coalition against Iran. Instead, he should opt for a broad-brush approach.

The message should be directed at the peoples of the Muslim countries rather than to their governments. This will confirm his commitment to democracy and emphasize his resolve not to appease the authoritarian regimes. While he should avoid getting into the intricacies of regional issues, he has to hold out hope that the US will promote resolution of conflicts and confrontations that afflict the Muslim world, whether they be Palestine, Kashmir or Chechnya, because they are the sad legacy of the humiliating colonial rule.

Obama has to reject forcefully the current vicious portrayal of Muslims and dispel the false association between Islam and terrorism. The world should not be divided between those that believe in the Judeo-Christian heritage and the rest. Instead, inter-state relations should be based on the universal principles of respect for human rights, self-determination and opposition to occupation and oppression.

The world knows that Obama cannot change US policy, but he can certainly usher in a new approach of tolerance, engagement and dialogue.


Daoud Kuttab
Director, Community Media Network

An Arab proverb says that a mad man throws a stone in a drinking well and 100 wise men are needed to get the stone out of the well. This proverb applies to the gigantic effort that Barack Obama will have to carry out as he attempts to clean up the mess that his predecessor created in the Arab and Muslim world. As in the proverb, the problem of regaining trust requires 100 times the effort made to lose it. Such rebuilding obviously can’t be built just with mere words even though words, and the right words, have a lot of meaning.

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.

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.

While foreign policy is crucial, a sincere show of respect and attempt to rebuild trust are more important

For years Americans have repeatedly spoke about a special value system that binds Americans with Israel by making repeated references to the Judeo-Christian heritage. This need to be replaced by an approach appealing to universal values based on human rights, self-determination, and opposition to occupation and dictatorships. President Obama would do well by reflecting on passages from the Islamic text that speak about human rights and the dignity of human beings. As the Amman Declaration states the Golden rule is a much more acceptable reflection of the Abrahamic faiths that Muslims, Jews and Christians adhere to.

The Quran clearly calls for protection of civilians and the environment especially during times of war. “You must not mutilate, neither kill a child or aged man or woman. Do not destroy a palm tree, nor burn it with fire and do not cut any fruitful tree.”

In the seventh century Islam’s second Khalifa Omar Ibn Khatab’s famous saying “why have you enslaved humans when they were born free” is probably the basis for the first article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

By quoting Islam to reflect human rights and democracy Obama can go a long way into rebuilding lost trust and confidence between the U.S. and the Islamic world.


Tariq Ramadan
Professor of Islamic Studies, Oxford University

The relationships between the United States and the Muslims have been so damaged after eight years of the Bush administration that the whole world is now wondering: what is President Barack Obama going to say to the Muslims? What should he say that could restore confidence and trust? It might be necessary to analyse the main causes of the deep mistrust we find today, not only in the Muslim majority countries, but among African, Asian and Western Muslims as well. For decades, and especially since 9/11, the Muslims around the world have received disturbing messages from the U.S. in both their substance and their form.

The former President George W. Bush was perceived as aggressive, often arrogant, narrow-minded and even deaf when he had to tackle Islamic issues and matters related to the Muslim majority countries or the Middle East. Beyond his words of respect, Muslims always kept in mind his first spontaneous religious references and words mentioning the “crusades” and the “axis of evil”. The “war on terror”, the bombing of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the lies about the weapons of mass destruction, the extraordinary renditions and the revealed tortures are cumulative elements testifying that the Muslims’ lives and dignity seemed to be of almost no value. Beyond the Bush’s rhetoric, his administration showed neither respect nor any sense of justice towards the Muslims, and its blind and unilateral support of Israel was and added testimony.

Barack Obama has this legacy to reverse. During his campaign he had to repeat several times that he is not a Muslim as if it was still a problem per se for the American society to be a Muslim, as Colin Powell once aptly put it. So it may be that the first thing one may expect is for President Barack Obama to deliver a message to the Muslims, the substance of which he is ready to bring back home. Obama has been very smart and cautious in delivering his political messages during the first months of his presidency: he has been working on discourses and symbols. He repeatedly expressed his respect towards Islam and the Muslims, announcing the closure of Guantanamo and cessation of torture and even by being tougher towards the Israeli Government regarding the settlements. These are positive steps one should not deny.

Yet, symbols and speeches are not enough. What we can expect from the new President is a change in attitude as well as effective and necessary actions to be taken. Humility is a key factor. In our global age, the United States might still be the most powerful nation in the world but it has not the monopoly of the good and the right. To be open to the world starts by being open to all the civilisations and by acknowledging the potential positive contribution of every religion and culture. Islam is a great civilization and Barack Obama should bring a true and deep message of respect by announcing that we all have to learn from each other and that he will commit himself to spread a better knowledge of cultural and religious diversity in the United States itself. Humility means we all have to learn from one another and Americans should be ready to learn from Islam and the Muslims as well as from the Hindus or the Buddhists. Paradoxically, how Obama intends to deal with education and religious diversity at home will be the true indicator of his real policy towards Islam and the Muslims in the world.

No civilization can claim to have the monopoly of the universal values and no one can claim to be always faithful to his own values. President Obama must stress the ideal values and human rights the United States stands for but he has also to acknowledge the mistakes, the failures, and the contradictions when it comes to their implementation. The lack of consistency is a global weakness shared by all the nations. The best way for the President to be heard when he calls for human rights, democratisation and announces the start of a new era with the Muslims would be to start by being constructively self-critical and acknowledging that the U.S. can do- and are going to do – much better in respecting the values they stand for and implementing just policies towards the Muslim world as well as the poor countries. This humble attitude based on the imperative duty of consistency is not a position of weakness but the exact opposite: hence, he can remind the leaders as well as the ordinary Muslims of their own contradictions and duties. Only a consistent and self-critical U.S. President can remind the Muslims that they have to act against corruption, extremism, dictatorships, lack of educational policies, discriminations towards women and poor people, etc., and to be heard with a minimum of trust.

Muslims are waiting for actions and they know from experience (with the U.S. as well as with their own governments) that politicians are good at words. President Obama has a very special status today in the world and especially in the Muslim world. He is one of the only U.S. Presidents who has both the background and the capacity to be more than only a symbol spreading around beautiful rhetoric. It would be sad to lose this historical opportunity and one is hoping he has a vision and a step-by-step efficient strategy for his country and the world. At the international level he should help us to forget that his father was a Muslim by refusing to be shy or apologetic and respect the right of both the individual and the populations in Palestine, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. The message he is to send to the Muslims should come from a President positioning himself beyond specific color and religious belonging with humility, consistency and respect. While delivering his speech he should make it clear that after many years of deafness in Washington, he has eventually heard them.


H.A. Hellyer
Fellow, Warwick University; Director, Visionary Consultants Group

I tend to be in Cairo fairly often, and year after year, I am astounded by the city. Traffic operates under no law known to man, abject poverty exists all over, corruption is rampant, pollution is rife-and yet, Cairo persists. Once, I asked a non-Cairene how this could be so, and he replied, “If it was left to natural law, Cairo would have fallen to pieces a long time ago. It is only by the barakah (grace) of the great men and women who lived and died here, that God allows it to be spared.” And now, Barack visits the land of barakah.

Some commentators argue choosing Cairo privileges the Arab world over the rest of the Muslim world, and that Obama should have elsewhere. They may be over optimistic about what the address actually means. The address is being given in order to turn enemies into friends; to turn back the wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world; to establish America less as part of the problems of the Muslim world, and more as part of the solutions. If that is put into perspective, its absolutely logical the address should be in the Arab world, because that’s where the most vivid crises lie. And if it should be in the Arab world, then it is only logical for it to be in Cairo, which is at the cultural heart of the Arab world and the region’s main Arab power broker.

But the politics are what they are, and as soon as the White House confirmed Cairo, critics from all sides of the political spectrum inside the US and Egypt derided the choice as a ‘reward’ for the deficiencies of the Egyptian regime. Obama’s too clued into the Arab and Muslim world to be unaware of the symbolism of his choice. He may have had the same point in mind when he chose Cairo-to go to a friend of the US, and say honestly to the whole of the Arab world (rather than Egypt in particular) that they have to move forward in promoting policies that will help restore their people to dignity, and take them out of internal repression and corruption. He will also have to mention those key political issues that the Muslim world most cares about: Palestine and Iraq.

The speech can and should also be about other things: this is an African-American President who will be speaking as a representative of Western civilization to the Islamic world. Key for Obama should be renewal-internal in so far as the West in general and America in particular is home to a huge population of Muslims, and thus, arguably, is a part of the ‘Islamic story’. It will be in keeping with his inaugural address if he mentions that aspect of the United States.

Perhaps most important of all-Obama has the opportunity to put on the table the whole issue of West-Muslim world engagement and civilizational dialogue. That’s important, and could be incredibly inspiring. The US is famed for introducing the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, and it is still at work in a variety of ways. Obama could, and should, put that thesis into the coffin, nail the last nail, and have a party on the grave.


John L. Esposito
Founding Director, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

The good news is that Barack Obama’s visit to Cairo and address is anticipated with excitement by many in the Muslim world and will receive global attention. However, Obama will be challenged to build on his inaugural, Al-Arabiyya interview and speeches in Turkey by indicating more concretely his promise of “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

In contrast to George W. Bush’s ideological approach to foreign policy, Obama represents a new paradigm, informed by a more realistic approach. Yet Obama’s combination of principle and pragmatism will be tested as he seeks to balance relations with old allies and populist expectations in the Muslim world.

Cairo presents an opportunity to flesh out aspects of Obama’s new paradigm, to demonstrate that when it comes to American foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world, he is ready to walk the way he talks. If President Obama demonstrates his knowledge of and expresses respect for Islam and Muslims, their historic contributions to history, culture, and science, many will be pleased at this welcome departure from the rhetoric of “Islamofascism” and of militant religious leaders, policymakers, and pundits. But that will not be enough. At a minimum, many are waiting to see what Obama says he will “do,” especially on hot-button issues like the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

The facts on the ground in the Arab and Muslim world, exacerbated by the brutality of the war in Gaza, and the Obama administration’s (the President and Secretary of State Clinton’s) recent strong statements to the Netanyahu government, have contributed to great expectations. However, without spelling out more specifically how he intends to deal with Israeli hard-line policies (such as Netanyahu’s post-Obama-meeting rejection of a total freeze on settlements and support for settlement expansion, reassertion of an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s control over a united Jerusalem, reluctance to speak of a two state solution), it will be seen “as same old, same old.”

Finally, Obama the realist is faced with how to work with authoritarian Arab and Muslim regimes while at the same time support the democratic aspirations of majorities in the Muslim world, as seen increasingly in electoral politics and in calls by secular and mainstream Islamists in Egypt and across the Muslim world for greater power sharing. Will he underscore the responsibility of Arab and Muslim rulers and leaders for developing more democratic societies?

That President Barack Obama has the desire, vision and intelligence to reach out to the broader Muslim world is without doubt. But will his speech in Cairo generate the same comment that a senior Middle East diplomat made after his Istanbul speech: “His words are wonderful but we still have not seen much action.”

John Bryson Chane
Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., Washington National Cathedral

There is much riding on President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world which will take place in Egypt when he visits Cairo University June 4th. It is no secret that relationships need to be repaired after 8 years of flawed U.S. Foreign Policy. This visit and what is offered by the president will determine what the next 4 years of Middle East U.S. Foreign Policy will look like.

As for priorities, this very first visit by the President must assure leaders such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt that the United States seeks a new cooperative, respectful relationship that will serve the interests of all 3 countries, especially as those interests attempt to seek a two state solution that is fair and equitable to both Palestine and Israel.

The second is to encourage a much stronger, collective leadership from the Muslim countries of the Middle East and their leadership in accomplishing this objective.

The third is to be clear that Iran is a significant and emerging power in the Middle East. This will not be an easy sell given Iran’s current isolation from its neighbors and the United States. Iran is a key player in eliminating the destructive influence of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Iran’s interests are similar to those of the United States and should be a common objective of other Middle Eastern countries.

The fourth priority is for the president to continue to press the cause of human rights in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, an issue that has often raised questions about U.S. Foreign Policy turning a blind eye to the issues of human rights violations in order to advance America’s interests in the region.

The fifth priority is for President Obama to understand and to be able to articulate to Sunni Muslim countries that Iran and Syria, both Shia’ dominated countries have caused significant dissonance in cooperative efforts to ease tensions in the region. Sunnis and Shia’s must put aside their religious differences and hostilities that have too often caused these two interpretations of Islam to be roadblocks to Middle East peace.

Robin Wright
Author, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

People across the Middle East are exhausted by decades of conflict and autocratic rule and exasperated by failed promises from several American presidents, usually early in a new administration, to do something about it.

President Bush particularly raised hopes with his 2003 speech conceding that the United States made mistakes during the previous 60 years giving priority to stability (that served our interests) over freedoms (that were in their interests). But then the Bush administration did nothing to follow up, except give more speeches – including one the Arabs particularly remember in Cairo by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Vastly diverse Muslim societies now share a common interest in hearing more than another pronouncement that the United States is not at war with the Muslim world or that America backs greater freedoms in the last bloc of countries to hold out against the democratic tide. Either will only irritate them more. They now want substance to prove good intent. It’s a simple rejoinder: “Where’s the beef?”

Polls indicate that the Muslim world is increasingly turning against extremism because militant groups can only destroy. Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and others have failed to provide tangible answers to the problems of daily life, all worsened by the global economic crisis. For the U.S. to really regain credibility and reverse the trends that led to 9/11, Obama will need to help provide specific answers, ideas, and programs addressing the needs of people-economically as well as on political and regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most Muslim countries are not big oil-producers. Most Muslim societies have huge demographic challenges with a youth bulge facing limited employment opportunities. Most governments in the Islamic world are corrupt as well as autocratic. And most regimes run deeply inefficient economies. Last year, the GDP of Egypt, a country with 82 million people, was $405 billion, not much more than Walmart’s revenues of $379 billion.

Meanwhile, U.S. aid has often gone to prop up regimes’ security forces rather than to develop societies. In Egypt, the government also insists U.S. aid should only go to government-approved organizations. The aspiring middle class, entrepreneurs, struggling techies, a new generation of women and youth want U.S. help, resources, technology or expertise so they can help themselves and their societies develop.

Suhaib Webb
Imam, Muslim American Society

Obama’s visit means many things to me, and I have a basic set of hopes for his visit. I supported him because I found those hopes constantly echoed in his words, actions and policies. And it is that same message that I hope will resonate here in the Middle East. While I do not expect him to change the world with one speech, I expect him to offer those qualities mentioned previously as well as address the following:

  1. The chronic disease of dictatorial autocratic regimes and systems coupled with the lack of culturally sensitive freedoms are the greatest contributor to the Middle East’s problems.
  2. End the partnerships of torture used in conjunction with some Middle Eastern states and the past administration; expressing a clear commitment to human rights.
  3. Economic development, investment and cooperation that would serve to address the festering unemployment problem amongst many young people here and the evaporation of a once growing middle class.
  4. A realistic compassed position on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.
  5. Building educational and cultural networks that will serve to cross educate the East and the West.
  6. Offer a compass for the future. Are we really going to be at war with each other for the next 100 years?
  7. Address the growing reality of political Islam. Is it possible to engage instead of vilifying political Islamists?

I salute President Obama for taking the steps to come to the Middle East and lay out America’s case. While I do not think it is fair, nor possible, for him to please everyone, President Obama brings something to the Middle East that has not been heard from America’s shores in sometime, hope and balanced leadership.