On June 4, President Obama delivered what was billed as a “major speech to the Muslim world” in Cairo, Egypt. As a followup to
commentary prior to the speech
, the Saban Center at Brookings’ Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World asked leading experts and policy-makers from the United States and the Muslim world to submit their thoughts on the speech.
Senior Fellow at Al-ahram Foundation and Expert on Middle East politics
President Obama’s speech succeeded on several levels. First, the President addressed all of the key issues that currently shape the relationship between the U.S. and Muslims – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Arab-Israel conflict, democracy promotion, and women’s rights. In laying out these issues, Obama was very clear and direct in calling for to a new beginning in the relationship between Muslims and United States.
Second, Obama tried to satisfy all parts in the Muslim world and Middle East, mentioning Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Copts. Obama made it clear that all these parties should work together to change the stereotypes about each other and forge new avenues for improved relations.
Generally, Obama was honest in addressing differences and commonalities between U.S. and Muslim world, and he called on all Muslims to focus on common ground and to decrease the differences between peoples. I would say that Obama won the first round in the battle of winning Muslim hearts and minds. However, the critical question remains – will these words to be translated into actions and policies by the U.S. administration or not, and what will Muslims and Arabs do to help Obama in this endeavor.
Senior Advisor, Business for Diplomatic Action
At President Obama’s speech yesterday, an elderly bearded man holding a prayer beads in hand sat next to me at the Cairo University as we waited for the long anticipated speech. I asked him what his expectations were from President Obama. He replied, “We just want to be treated with respect.” As The President used his second quotation from the Koran, the man sitting next to me impetuously stood up and shouted “Obama, I love you!” After the speech, he said “we have been waiting for this for a very long time. I hope he will be able to transform these words into actions.” Likewise, former head of one of the largest business organizations called to offer congratulations on a “great” speech and said he is “now ready to visit the U.S.” after an eight year hiatus. Similar sentiments were echoed by another prominent TV commentator in a call to me. He described the speech as “historic” and added, “This is a very good beginning. Now, we as Arabs have to do our part to take the necessary steps to respond to these positive gestures. We need to translate these words into tangible results.” In an open letter to the Al-Ahram Weekly, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, wrote that “policies can only be improved by adopting a collection of [positive] actions and attitudes.”
The operative word in reaction to the President’s speech was “action.” In many ways, giving the speech was the easiest part. The toughest part will be translating these words into actions where all parties see and feel the change on the ground. After 60 years, to many in the Arab and the larger Muslim world the core issue remains the Israeli-Palestinian territorial conflict. This territorial conflict between Christian/Muslim Palestinians and the Israelis was exploited by the religious extremists, and was turned into a rallying call for jihad, thus emphasizing the religious dimensions with repercussions from Morocco to Indonesia. The perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the salient factor in a propaganda war launched by the extremists against the United States and its allies. The images of Palestinian subjugation and suffering at the hands of Israeli Defense Forces are broadcasted endlessly on Middle Eastern satellite channels, thus giving extremists a recruiting bonanza for future jihadists and suicide bombers. With more than 50% of the region’s population under the age of 25 and increasingly diminishing prospects for education and employment, America’s allies in the region are sitting on a powder keg.
President Obama has rightfully recognized the often ignored fact that the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only in the national interests of Israel and the Arab countries but is also in the U.S. national interests. It is the resolution of this conflict or lack thereof that would ultimately determine the success or failure of President’s policy of engagement with the Muslim world. As a cab driver said to me, “we all love Obama and we know the task ahead is tough, but the fact remains the U.S. is the only country in the world that has the ability to bring both sides to the negotiating table and deliver results.”
Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert Magazine
I am certain about two things. I am a Muslim, and I live in this world. Now the uncertainties begin. On 4 June you gave what was heavily advertised as a major speech to the “Muslim world”. Does that mean that while every Christian believes in the divinity of Jesus, he can be legitimately and widely varied in his political interests, but Muslims must have both Allah and politics in common?
As an Indian Muslim I belong to the second largest Muslim community in the world. I also live, proudly, as an equal, in India, a nation that contains the largest Hindu community in the world. Do you think I have the same political views as my fellow Muslims in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Nepal? You did mention that there are around six million Muslims in America. Were you speaking to them, or on their behalf, in Cairo? But for the accidents of life, you could have been an American Muslim, a Kenyan Muslim or an Indonesian Muslim. Would the same speech serve for all three?
Muslims live not only in different cultures and geo-political spaces, but also under different Constitutions. Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim nation, does not believe in a state religion. Pakistan, the second largest, became the world’s first Islamic republic. There are kings and autocrats and elected heads of government in the “Muslim world”, and one category that can only be described as “immoveable object” unopposed by any irresistible force. Many Muslims live on the margins. Not many seem aware of this fact, and it is possible that none of your speechwriters pointed it out, but 10% of the Russian population is Muslim. Islam came to that vast Eurasian region around the same time as the Christian church. Do Russian Muslims belong to the same “Muslim world” as Indonesians and Moroccans? The Chinese keep their Muslim-majority province, Xingiang, a sort of closely guarded state secret, frightened that Islam might jump up and bite off Communism’s ear. Which world do these Muslims belong to? And what about the chaps in Britain, who probably went over on the assumption that Britain was still Great. Or the French Muslims, whose ears are still ringing with the famous Sarkozy diktat: “Off with their headscarfs!” Where would you place them? In Above-Saharan Africa?
At one point you were kind enough to suggest that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam”. But no sane person ever accused America of being at war with Islam. America would have to be a theocracy, with Inquisition as its preferred domestic policy, and conversion as the principal instrument of foreign affairs, to declare war on Islam. I hope you will not accuse me of being pedantic, in the sense of calling a toothache a gum-ache. The conflation of Islam and Muslims is precisely the kind of misconception that encourages pre-nation-state fantasies like the revival of a Caliphate. One might add that while every Muslim was deeply committed to his faith, political disputes among Muslims began with the election of the very first Caliph, Hadrat Abu Bakr. Muslims see themselves as a brotherhood, not a nation-hood. If Islam is sufficient glue for nationalism, why would Arabs be living in 22 countries? That should have been obvious while you were snacking on Arab cookies and Islamic lemonade in Cairo.
“Islam and the West” is another phrase wandering through a dialectic shaped within the Queen of Alice’s Wonderland. Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How do you construct a relationship between faith and geography? You can have a debate on Islam and Christianity, or indeed between the West and West Asia, or the West and South Asia, or South East Asia. There is a past and a future to discuss. “Islam and the West” is straight out 19th century Orientalism, laden with a subtext that is best left to warmongers. Peace requires a different idiom.
We understood your problem as you weaved through political and rhetorical swamps, because your predecessor managed to achieve what the mightiest of Muslim rulers failed to do – unite Muslims, albeit against him rather than for something. But every Muslim does not need a homily on democracy. Muslims of Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India, who add up to nearly half the Muslim population, are not democracy-deficit.
The appropriate venue for a speech on Islam would have been Mecca, Medina or Jerusalem. But the first two cities are barred to non-Muslims or apostates; and the third would have been too toxic for an American President.
Cairo was the perfect podium for the speech that we did hear, since your true theme was not the “Muslim world” but the region between the Nile and the Indus, which I have, elsewhere, called the “Arc of Turbulence”. Those searching for a convenient caption for the Cairo oration might want to call it the “Nildus Speech”.
For the citizens of this region between Egypt and Pakistan, and particularly for Muslims, this was a brilliant gleam in the gloom to which they have become accustomed. Its great merit was justice and fairness, virtues that are repeatedly exalted in the Holy Quran. You did not deny Palestine its rights because you wanted to preserve what Israel has acquired. Of course you will be criticized for being even-handed, but you have survived worse.
It was extremely important that a President of the United States quoted the Quran’s unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, through a verse that is particularly beautiful. This will go a long way to correct the propaganda unleashed by those who controlled the White House and influenced media before you.
There was one element of your speech that did address almost the whole of the Muslim world: your stark, unambiguous condemnation of gender bias, one of the besetting sins of the “Muslim world”. If Muslims do not eliminate gender bias, they will not be permitted into the 20th century: who is going to send them an invitation to join the 21st? Barack Obama has offered the key, but it is up to Muslims to open the door.
Chief Information Commissioner, India
Dear Mr. President,
As you will see from my name and designation I am an Indian and a Muslim. I am also very proud of the Islamic heritage of South Asia, its diversity and richness and the contribution that Muslims have made not only to the evolution of India’s culture of which it has become and remains so intrinsic a part. I therefore wished you to know of the deep appreciation that I and many others here in India have for your efforts to reach out to the world’s Muslims and end a confrontation that was so unnecessary and indeed so grievously debilitating to humanity’s quest for a future of peace and harmony.
I have today made so bold as to address this letter to you, to express my discomfort with the use of the term ‘Muslim World.’ The use of this term is true not only of the NYT headline that I have quoted but seems also to have been the substance of a statement made by White House spokesman Mr. Gibbs.
Why am I as a Muslim of India uncomfortable with this terminology? On the one hand, by characterizing what are no more than different aspects of our world in these terms implying something separate, one will unwittingly give weight to a concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with all its grievous consequences. On the other, what world am I, a Muslim of India, a country with the second largest population of Muslims in the world, to consider myself part of?
In conclusion therefore Mr. President my plea to you is that we consider the world a unified entity with all the many ethnic and religious groups that constitute it being components of a larger whole. The Muslims would, as you would well know, like to regard themselves as a community, an ‘ummah.’ This is just as there is a Christian community and a Buddhist and Hindu. But these are all diverse in themselves and the richer for it. Let us then reach out to each other simply as Christians to Muslims and Muslims to Hindus and so on of our own world, not to those from another world. Then every part of this world can begin working together to enrich itself and so strengthen this world, which is ours to share.
With every assurance of my highest regard, I remain
Former Deputy Prime Minister, Malaysia
The discourse between Islam and the West as we know very well has been loaded with enormous historical baggage. It remains so today. What it tells us is that in as much as the interpretations of history differ and diverge so do the perceptions about Islam and the West. Today, regardless of George Bush, there continues to be a clash of interpretations on the subject.
Globalization, in principle, at least requires that we overcome that which divides us. In the coming decades humanity must find ways to overcome the immense challenges of climate change, poverty and the drying up of energy resources. Sustainable development of the vast majority of the world’s population remains a significant challenge, particularly in times of recession. These are problems of monumental proportion and are best solved as a community of nations working together.
Barack Obama has assumed the office of the President of the United States at a moment when the relationship between Islam and the West is among the most important political and social issues in the world. We see in him a leader committed to the values of freedom and democracy, and a president who believes that the critical issues dividing the United States and the Muslim world can be resolved not through fiery rhetoric and bellicose language but by positive engagement in a language of mutual respect.
His administration has made some positive moves in its early days. A tangible end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is not yet visible; however, the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy is a welcome step. The language of fairness and balance now injected into this long-standing conflict by Obama in recent days is a welcome respite from previous administrations. America’s anticipated withdrawal from Iraq, though delayed, is well regarded, as is a rethinking of its approach in Afghanistan. The opening of the books, so to speak, on torture and detainee abuse is a painful and cathartic process. A proper accounting of the abuses, as well as the closure of Guantanamo Bay, will go far in helping the US to regain its international credibility.
While President Obama has espoused a message of peace he must nevertheless contend with issues of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. His message of engagement and dialogue resonates with the vast population of Muslims now living in Europe and the United States. But integration evokes powerful emotions. Thanks no doubt to the historical baggage and the heavy load of prejudices that come along with it, Turkey has not found it easy in its bid to join the European Union. France and England have faced violent riots emanating from the ghettoized populations of Muslims who now call the major European population centers their own homes. The furor that erupted over the Danish cartoons reflects both the deplorable condition of Muslim-West relations and the challenges we still face in developing a language of mutual respect with which to engage both sides.
While I would continue no doubt to advocate that Europe and the United States pursue an open door policy in promoting freedom and democracy, I must once again say that the conviction to move from autocracy to democracy must emanate from the Muslim countries themselves.
Even if we are agreed that Muslims must be committed to change, the question that remains is how we can proceed. Real engagement must be inclusive. We should not start by building a wall around ourselves, setting preconditions, and prejudging groups and parties. These impediments only serve to strengthen old prejudices and further sow suspicion and doubt. If the notion of the universalism of Islam is to mean anything, it would require that its values of justice, compassion and tolerance be practiced everywhere. Can we remain blind to the injustice perpetrated in non-Muslim countries? Should we not also relate to the suffering of other minorities in Muslim countries? And our condemnation against the violation of human rights must transcend race, colour or creed. But we should do well to remember that no nation, no region, and no culture or religion has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity. If we seek to engage in dialogue between Islam and the West that is meaningful, then let it be based on these universal principles that we all share.
It is true that the existence of extremists in Muslim countries is no figment of the imagination, but they are by products of a society without accountability, freedom or democracy. These are states led by autocrats who have received financial and military support of the democratic West, particularly America. Obama’s efforts in this regard ought to be directed towards formulating policies that achieve America’s strategic objectives without compromising the democratic forces in the Muslim world. Support for regimes that cannot be held accountable to their own citizens is recipe for long-term failure despite the possibility of short-term gains. There should be no more equivocal actions and the foreign policy of selective ambivalence must end.
It cannot be easy to be an unmitigated cynic when it comes to President Barack Obama. His speech to the Muslim world in Cairo was unexceptional because with Obama, the expectation now is that he will continue to raise the extremely high standards that he has already set. He did just that. This speech will be remembered for a number of different things.
As he has done so boldly, but so carefully since 2004, Obama’s chose to make the central appeal of his speech to Muslims, a moral appeal. He used the words “should” and “must” a total of 43 times. This moral reasoning, whether it was to argue for freedom to speak, to believe or to dress, was universal. He didn’t just argue for Muslims to accept the reality of the Holocaust, or for non-Muslims to not be illiberal about the Hijab-he argued for universal values that are a part of a human tradition-the freedom to think and believe and express oneself.
The speech wove an American agenda in the Muslim world in moral language that is going to be very difficult for both Daniel Pipes and for Ayman Al Zwahiri to demonize. Yet whether they do it individually, or institutionally, agencies and institutions that trade in intolerance and negativity will try.
Hezbollah was quick to point out that Muslims didn’t need a moral sermon from Obama. But the joke is on Hezbollah. Obama’s already established street cred in the Muslim world means that in fact he is quite a good source of a sermon. Especially one that quotes intelligently and liberally, from the Holy Quran, and especially because too few of the Muslim world’s leaders, whether it is Hosni Mubarak, or Asif Ali Zardari, have any kind of moral authority to quote from the Holy Book, and be taken seriously. How telling of the crisis of leadership in the Muslim world, that Barack Obama is a more credible quoter from the Quran than any living Muslim leader?
Obama’s focus on the Muslim world’s youth was palpable, and brilliant. Facebook and Twitter were awash in translations and transcriptions of all kinds. Like his campaign for President, Obama’s campaign for peace in the Muslim world already has more grassroots cred than the often sad and weak attempts to be hip, made by leaders and representatives of Muslim countries.
Writers and intellectuals in the Muslim world often lament America’s weak and myopic understanding of their countries and culture. Yet, Obama demonstrated a depth of appreciation for what drives the hearts, minds and souls of ordinary Muslims by referring to the common bonds of people and their appetite for confidence in the rule of law, and government that doesn’t steal from the people.
The US foreign policy establishment and its glacial speed is no match for the campaign mode of Obama and his team. That is unfortunate. In his speech, Obama began a dialogue that should have long been a core pillar of America’s approach to Muslims-an alliance with the people, rather than the patrons and pilferers that oppress them. That this journey began in Egypt is no kind of contradiction at all. Sooner rather than later, when Hosni Mubarak punches the clock, a new democracy in Egypt will emerge. It will invariably be influenced by a reformed, reframed and post-modern Muslim Brotherhood. By appealing to morality, to youth and to the universality of God, President Obama made the task of future American leaders and diplomats in Egypt and around the Muslim world, just a little bit easier.
Fellow, Warwick University; Director, Visionary Consultants Group
As symbolism goes, this was quite symbolic. Obama could have spoken from the Azhar University, the premier Islamic educational institution, rather than Cairo University, but Azhar was a ‘joint host,, and he did visit the Sultan Hassan mosque where the mufti of Egypt often gives the Friday sermon.
This speech was of two parts: the first spoke of general issues. Obama recalled how Islam carried the light of enlightenment in the West, how Islam and the US are not exclusive to one another, and how they shared very much. Here, as at the end of his speech, he was very convincing as someone who believed that a relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect could be a reality and should be a reality.
The second part was about topics: there were a couple he mentioned by way of the preamble, such as attacking Islamophobia and upholding the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab if they so chose (which will be heard badly in many parts of Europe). Then he mentioned 7 topics: violent extremism (and he did not use words like jihadis), the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran, democracy promotion, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development.
On the other topics: he pulled it off on ‘violent extremism,’ covering Iraq & Afghanistan sufficiently and without any surprises. He did particularly well on the issue of democracy: the words he used will make it very uncomfortable for all undemocratic governments, including Arab ones.
On nuclear weapons, he warned Iran, as well as issuing a promise to seek a world without nuclear weapons. But he is going to have make that more than just words. Democracy encouragement – what will that mean for all countries in the Muslim world? The eradication of nuclear weapons all over the world?
The key topic, and the one he spoke on more than the rest, was the one people were most interested in hearing: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He will have annoyed many in the Muslim world by drawing attention to the Holocaust – a Holocaust that the Muslim world was not responsible for or engaged in. He will have made the Israelis feel very much out on a limb by insisting on a Palestinian state and a rejection of settlements. But he did not bring up two of the major issues of the conflict: the status of Jerusalem and the refugee problem.
The entire Muslim world was probably watching this, and perhaps there was an emphasis on the Arab world more than its demographic warrants. But, after all, this is about fault lines, and it is in the Arab world fault lines most exist. All in all, one has to recall: frankly speaking, neither Bush, nor Obama’s defeated opponent in the presidential election, are likely to have ever said words like Obama did in Cairo. His quotations from the Qur’an and his general demeanour may have won him goodwill and optimism from the Muslim world; they will now be waiting for him to put ideas into action.
President Obama’s message to the Muslim world was: “Ask not what America can do for you, but ask what you can do for yourselves and your own countries.” The President’s speech was remarkable and historic, proving that he is the best ambassador the United States has to the Muslim world. Muslim communities worldwide will see this opportunity as re-defining relations with America, ridding ourselves from historical baggage. Difficult yes, but today there’s a ray of hope.
His message of reform within the Muslim world will not be dismissed as it has been when previous presidents spoke to Muslim audiences. He discussed the isolation of extremists while partnering with Muslim communities as an important pivot in his foreign policy. It’s a new era for US Muslim World relations.
The stage set for the President of the United States of America marked a turning point for US-Muslim World relations. Cairo was the place, a former capital of the Muslim world, a capital of culture and political influence, a bridge between not only the US and Muslim countries, but between Asia and Africa. He spoke from a university, not a government building, he connected between society and religion in the Muslim World. He welcomed the co-sponsorship of Al-Azhar, where Sheikh Muhammad Abdu preached reform over a century ago.
The private chatter of world leaders, including those in our own country, must be expressed to the public, and their public posturing must end to address real concerns of their peoples, moving forward to serve human needs. Otherwise, their days in politics are numbered.
If I were Palestinian, I see the opportunity in this president the reality of a Palestinian state. He referred to Palestine’s existence as something that cannot be denied, just as Israel’s existence cannot be denied. If I were Israeli, I see the opportunity in this president one who can explain the Jewish narrative to Muslims worldwide and help in lasting security for Israel. President Obama maybe the only one standing in Washington calling for a two state solution, as the Congress and the Beltway has pretty much given up on hope for the peace process. But he is a powerful voice with a growing American and global constituency.
The right wing in America calls him an apologist. The extremists in the Muslim world call him soft or rhetoric without action. In actuality, the two are in the same camp now, and President Barack Obama is leading a bus for peace and prosperity. If we achieve peace in the Middle East, there will be peace dividends for all of us, let alone the moral satisfaction of reducing tensions and improving human relations.
Presdent Barack Obama dealt a blow to bin Laden today. The President spoke to the Muslim peoples and articulated his respect for Islam and the contributions of Muslims to world civilization. We can expect more from bin Laden, but we can also have hope that his voice will become irrelevant and the voice of the moderate mainstream will be the barometer for Islam’s role in global affairs.
It is now the responsibility of Muslim Americans to form constituencies for the peace process, along with Christians and Jews. Now more than ever there is a need for Abrahamic faiths to create a new paradigm for cooperation beginning in America. Otherwise, the President’s speech will be just another great speech. Worse yet, we, Muslims and Jews will be blamed for missing this opportunity to work together in cooperation for America’s interests. We must be pro-America, not pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian in our orientation. It’s time to engage the other, especially with those whom we disagree.
Columnist, The Washington Post
It seems so simple when President Obama says it. You listen to him and you say, “Of course!” He knows it too. His greatest talent is to be able to confront the truth in a manner that manages not to offend, even if one does not like that truth.
He says “this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” He takes the first step. He says what everyone who has dealt with problems in the Middle East knows to be true. People do not say what they really mean to each other. Recently at a Brookings conference in Doha on Islam I found myself going to panel after panel listening to people of all faiths express their views. Then over meals, many would say exactly the opposite when they had no fear of being recorded. Obama addressed this head on. “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. And he quotes the Koran, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” “That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can…” he said. Later he would add, “America…will 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.”
More importantly, Obama is not afraid of religion. He is completely comfortable talking about it. He has no religious prejudice. He is totally pluralistic. He is knowledgeable about religions other than his own, and he is, and this is the key word, respectful. Often, leaders who harbour suspicions or lack of understanding toward other faiths will engage in platitudes rather than take a chance on alienating anyone. Not this president. He knows that without understanding religious issues there is no chance of accomplishing anything near peace.
He can say assalaamu alaykum and make it sound as if he had not been standing in front of a mirror practicing all day. He can talk about zakat, Muslim charity, with ease. He can quote the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud with equal enthusiasm. He can honor Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, by saying “peace be upon them” without being self conscious.
His speech was clearly directed toward Muslim. This was, however, not a speech about religion or policy. It was a speech about understanding and respect. He addressed every key issue unflinchingly. But by combining his comfort and knowledge of relig