Like millions of others across the Middle East, I was eager to listen to US President Obama give his speech in Cairo on June 4. As an Arab-American, I was excited to see my own president addressing issues I’ve found myself trying to explain since my childhood four decades ago as I travelled back and forth across the Atlantic: the relationship between America and the Middle East.
However, unlike many others who may have wanted to express their views, I had the privilege of spending the day as a commentator on a widely-watched TV news broadcast and hosting an event for the American Ambassador to Qatar to talk about the speech at the Brookings Doha Center which I direct.
In suit and tie, sitting upright in my chair before the cameras, as I watched President Obama speak, I found myself in awe of his ability to convey so much of the truth of what needs to be done both in the Middle East and in the US in order to heal the wounds.
Although the President had policy prescriptions— reiterating his intention to end torture, close Guantanamo Bay, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with justice, end the American combat mission in Iraq—what captivated me most was how profoundly Obama capped off his first four months in office with this speech.
When the TV anchor asked for my reaction, I couldn’t help but say that I felt that this was single best speech by an American president in my lifetime in the Middle East.
For me, President Obama’s speech in Cairo was a resounding victory for the power of America’s character.
President Obama evoked political truths, social truths and the word of God through Judaism, Christianity and Islam to speak in such a way that I felt ordinary Arabs and Muslims would welcome the speech with open-hearts.
And that if there was ever a speech by an American president that could get ordinary Arabs and Muslims, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, to look in the mirror and address their problems, this was it.
I also found myself in interesting company.
The TV anchor, then, to my surprise went live to ask feedback from an advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who very fondly compared the speech to US President John F Kennedy’s historic 1963 speech to a Berlin divided by the Cold War.
And then, even more to my surprise when he asked for the reactions of a senior Hamas spokesman, he favourably compared Obama’s speech to the famous 1963 speech by slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King where he said “I have a dream that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” American’s arch-enemy Bin Laden was apparently so irked by Obama’s speech and the favour reactions by Sunni conservatives and militants that it was reported he broke secrecy to send the message to the media that cooperation with Jews and Christians was a crime! Indeed, the two of them made surprising company as cheerleaders.
But what was more surprising to me was that when the usual pundits came out, many of them began by picking apart Obama’s speech for all its flaws.
Some Israelis said Obama missed a chance to prepare the Arab world for territorial compromise in the West Bank.
Some Palestinians said Obama echoed Israeli sentiments too much.
Hassan Abu Nimah, director of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Amman, said “The speech was very evasive and lacking substance.” Prominent Lebanese Shia scholar, Hasssan Fadallah said, “The Islamic world does not need political sermons.” Conversely, at the town hall event we hosted at the Brookings Doha Center—with our largest audience ever—the tone was overwhelmingly positive, but some said “Actions speak louder than words.” Fair enough.
So how should the Middle East react to Obama’s speech? My hope is that ordinary citizens, and political leaders alike, will take President Obama at his word when he said, “we have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning… The Holy Quran tells us, ‘We have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ And he said “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.’ 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.” If the Middle East is to take President Obama at his word, instead of being cynics, they should seize the opportunity, take President Obama at his word, and work together for progress.
In the 40 plus years I have lived, I have never witnessed such an open and extended hand from a US President to the Middle East—Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs alike.
And in the 40 plus years I hope to have left, I do not think we will witness such an extended hand of friendship again.