Why Obama’s Cairo speech matters
Anyone who has heard President Obama speak, and is not convinced of the possibility of a historical turning point, may safely regard himself to be a prophet of doom.
The President was in Saudi Arabia last week from where he went to make the big speech in Cairo (June 4, 2009). For full text of the speech, click here.
He walked in a familiar swagger, greeted the audience with an “assalamu alaykum”; said he was Barack Hussein Obama and quoted from the Quran. At some point, somebody shouted: “We love you.” Many choked on the speech.
America, as has been said of Shakespeare, is a great but irregular genius. From the barbed wire to the bar code and from air-conditioning to airbags, American inventions have changed our lives. It is because of Americans that we can fly half way round the globe and that we switch on our lights with the fall of dusk.
But for over a century, America has stood for abominable arrogance. It has pulled governments down, fought futile wars, pitted one against another, egged Muslims to war and pursued hateful goals that go against even their own ideals.
Contrary to what one of its founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, had hoped for, America’s wisdom did not grow with its power and neither was it enough to tell them that the less America uses it power, the greater it will be.
As it moved from strength to strength, thriving luxuriantly on the fruits of free market, it became powerful but corrupt. Power corrupts countries and superpower corrupts countries superbly. That’s what happened to America.
Now, we have a President with an olive branch. Is Obama to be trusted? Is the Cairo speech to be loved for its lilt, savoured for its fluency, appreciated for its honesty and welcomed for its atonement?
According to some, Obama speaks before Obama does. So is the Cairo lecture to be glossed over as a passing nicety? Does Obama matter (to Muslims, especially)? More precisely, does Obama’s Cairo speech matter?
It does. It was in Cairo that we saw American lexicon change. Bush’s “crusade” (in one of his first comments after 9/11, the former President used this word to describe the war on terror) has changed to Obama’s “cooperation”. “Tolerance” replaced “terrorists”.
Bushed may have hastily retracted the “crusade” epithet, but for eight long years, it was a sticky reminder that America had reduced its war on terror into a battle between Christians and Muslims.
Bush never did anything to clear the air, really. Muslims cringed at the tone of his rhetoric. Even European governments did. Bush’s disdainful demeanour helped al-Qaida whip up more frenzy, more anti-Americanism, find more recruits and fill itself with more dangerous determination.
Now, we have heard Obama say something that has to be adored for even its face value: “America is not and will never be at war with Islam.”
The Cairo speech addressed Islam with sincerity: “As a student of history, I also know civilisation’s debt to Islam.”
It is a fact universally known that Islamic philosophers Al Farabi, Ibn Sinna (Avicenna for Europeans), Ibn Rushd (Aviroes for Europeans) and al-Ghazali rescued and revived Aristotle and Neo-Platonism from obscurity.
The Cairo speech has the urgency of the season’s first rush of snow or a tiger’s leap and it shows what Islam has been. “It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.”
It is not often that Americans accept their follies and promise to atone for them: “And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
An American had just pledged, in a globally televised address to Muslims, to actually defend Islam. And so we must be willing to at least give him a chance.
Nobody balanced out the vast, silent majority of peace-loving Muslims with the American goal to take on a “potent minority” of Muslims who kill in faith’s name: “We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security — because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.”
As Muslims struggle to culturally remain who they are, President Obama makes it clear that a women who chooses to cover her hair is no less equal than others but a woman denied education is.
All optimists think alike, but cynics differ in their own narrow ways. Right-wing remnants are saying Obama is going too far. On the other hand, Muslims made sceptical by years of oppression advocate facta non verba, or words backed by deed. Some have already concluded that not much will change.
But in my opinion, here is why Obama need not be put through a lie-detector test. Obama is sincere because he is only reflecting the larger US public opinion, which is against conflict.
Terror must be fought, but without terrorising. It will soon be evident that in this insurmountable war on terror, the West is changing tack. The approach is not changing in White House alone. White House in fact has only climaxed this change.
In January 2008, the British government adopted a new language for description of Islamic terrorism. It renamed “Islamic terrorism” as “anti-Islamic activity”.
It decided that terror by Muslims should be referred to as “anti-Islamic activity”. This is the way to fight terror intelligently. You have to crush the ant that bites, not the entire train of insects.
In one her first speeches, Britain’s first female Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, said in January 2008 that terrorists who kill and main were “behaving contrary to their faith”, rather than what it stood for. The West has rightly realised that “directly linking terror to Islam was inflammatory” and risked alienating Muslims. The tactic across governments is to depict terrorists as nothing more than plain murderers.
During his Saudi Arabia visit in January 2008, French president Nicholas Sarkozy hailed Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has ever known”.
President Sarkozy said: “Fourteen centuries ago, from this place, went forth the great élan of piety, fervor, and faith that would carry off everything it met, that would convert so many peoples and bring about the birth of one of the greatest, most beautiful civilizations that the world has ever known. Here in Saudi Arabia are the holiest sites of Islam, towards which every Muslim in the world turns to pray. […] The West received the Greek heritage thanks to the Muslim civilization. […] No doubt, Muslims, Jews and Christians do not believe in God in the same manner. No doubt, they do no have the same way of venerating God, of praying, of serving him; but, at bottom, who could deny that it is the same God to whom they address their prayers?” For full text, click here.
Today’s challenge need not be about Islam versus West, but rather about Terror versus the Rest. Singling terrorists out should be our singular goal. In this pursuit, an Obama in hand is worth two in the Bush.