The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, June 5, 2009

Looking Inward

Obama Seeks Cooperation and Respect from Muslims by Asking Them to Understand What Americans Honestly Like and Don’t Like About Them

Universal anticipation of President Obama’s address yesterday at Cairo University ran so high that disappointment seemed virtually guaranteed. Yet Obama managed to surprise by actually doing what he promised to try to do at its start – tell the truth. His critics always expected him to “tell the truth” on America. Surely, a speech intended to reverse years of mistrust and provide a fresh start in its place could only come by what they see as more Obama apologizing for our country.

Instead, it was a speech carefully crafted to make no tributes to Islam without corresponding accolades to America and no criticisms of America without accompanying reproach for Islam. For all its Arabic phrases and quotes from the Qur’an, Obama proved he could appeal to Muslims without engaging in appeasement.

Obama began with a long tribute to the achievements of Muslims throughout the centuries and denounced those who would disparage Islam’s rich history due to the acts of extremists, saying it was part of his responsibilities as President “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

At this point, he quickly pivoted to insist the “same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Obama then went on to list U.S. accomplishments.

Obama emphatically stated, “America is not and never will be at war with Islam.” Despite this, he insisted the U.S. would “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security . . . it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.”

Former President Bush made many similar promises to value and protect Islam from unjust persecution while simultaneously defending America’s right to defend itself. His actions and policies spoke louder than his words and created significant distrust and hostility among man Muslims.

Obama made it clear that although he disagreed with how the previous Administration chose to implement its foreign policy, he essentially agreed with what they wished to accomplish. He picked up the badly bent and dented sword representing the BuSharon Doctrine and did not beat it into a plowshare but rather the straighter, simpler sword of the original Bush Doctrine.

He characterized Iraq “a war of choice” that brought about some good but also “reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.” On the other hand, Obama adamantly painted Afghanistan as “a war of necessity” and indicated the U.S. will continue to fight there so long as we remain confident of the presence of “violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.”

Obama admitted that September 11 “was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked . . . in some cases . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals.” However, he was unapologetic in regarding some action as justified. “Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 . . . innocent men, women, and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al-Qaida chose to ruthlessly murder these people.” The President would brook no alternative explanations. “These are not opinions to be debated. These are facts to be dealt with.”

He unequivocally avowed, “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” At the same time, Obama expressed his desire for governments “that reflect the will of the people.” And all people, according to Obama, tend to desire the basic rights associated with self-determination – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, rule of Law and equal protection. He presented these not as the cornerstones of American democracy but as basic human rights, universally recognized by all nations.

Obama went on at length to list deficiencies in some of these areas in various Muslim countries. “Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith.” He also chided both Sunnis and Shi’a for the often violent rifts that have pitted the two sects against each other.

He chided those who suggest traditional Muslim dress somehow disadvantaged women but went on to state, “I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”

Obama expanded on that concept to disparage the tendency of Islamic fundamentalists to view Western progress as evil and counter to tradition. “All of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st Century. And in too many Muslim communities, there remains underinvestment in these areas.”

Moreover, he warned that these proclivities by some Muslim groups/regimes “have led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries but also to human rights.”

Obama sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the heart of much of the distrust of America by Muslims. His calls for a separate Palestinian homeland and his insistence that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu cease all expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including “natural growth” has many labeling him an enemy of Israel.

In his speech, Obama deplored the “pain of dislocation” for Palestinians seeking a homeland and the “daily humiliations” they suffer under “occupation,” calling them “intolerable.” However, he carefully laid out the Jewish nation’s history of suffering and its modern birth out of the Holocaust, labeling its denial by some Muslims as “baseless,” “ignorant,” and “hateful.” And he insisted that America’s long-standing bonds with Israel would remain “unbreakable.”

By all accounts, the President’s address met with approval from many Muslims. Even extremist groups, who viewed Obama’s speech as more stagecraft than statesmanship, conceded that he set a more somber, more respectful, and more effective tone than his predecessor. As with American Catholics following his speech at Notre Dame, many Muslims did not find his quotes from scripture as disrespectful, instead feeling sincerity in them.

Obama, understanding the limits of this speech, said later that he was merely trying to “create the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart.”

It may seem a strange approach to some that he would do so by criticizing Islam so frequently and forthrightly to its face. Yet Obama would argue that, to the extent he was successful, it came from this rather than in spite of it. As he said, coming together peacefully “does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite. We must face these tensions squarely.”

Judgment is still out over whether this speech will be effective in generating the type of educational and economic cooperation the President proposed in his conclusion. However, it was most certainly neither apologetic nor appeasing in tone.

Near the end of his speech, Obama observed, “It's easier to blame others than to look inward.” By demonstrating his own willingness for self-examination and self-honesty, as well as his respect for alternate views, Obama may cause Muslims to look inward and re-examine their own biases and prejudices. He might have done the same for more Americans as well. This is not, as Obama's critics will correctly point out, the end solution for anything specific. It is, however, the start of the solution for everything.

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