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A new dialogue? Obama’s Cairo speech

Commentary, 4 June 2009
Americas, Middle East and North Africa
Obama’s Cairo speech has fulfilled the Obama administration’s determination to change in tone and substance the US dialogue with the Muslim world. It revealed an understanding of current political realities and the core beliefs of all parties. Through personal engagement he emphasised that violence should be rejected as a political tool. While Obama will have won credit to manage the challenges ahead, he must still show the moral authority to act in the face of criticism.

Obama’s Cairo speech has fulfilled the Obama administration’s determination to change in tone and substance the US dialogue with the Muslim world. It revealed an understanding of current political realities and the core beliefs of all parties. Through personal engagement he emphasised that violence should be rejected as a political tool. While Obama will have won credit to manage the challenges ahead, he must still show the moral authority to act in the face of criticism.

By Mina al-Oraibi for RUSI.org

In his address to the Muslim world on 4 June, President Obama said the word peace twenty-nine times, once in Arabic, while not mentioning the word 'terror' once. That is the change that he promised, in tone and substance.

Those looking for policy changes in the speech were looking in the wrong place; the White House had long made clear that this was not a place for major policy announcements. This was Obama's opportunity to say: “I've been listening”. He came to office promising to listen to the concerns of those with grievances; to learn before making judgements and decisions. His speech carried much evidence that he has fulfilled that promise, from understanding the problems faced by American Muslims in paying their obligatory charity 'zakat' in the US for fear of being tainted with supporting extremists, to understanding the humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation.

Political Realities, Core beliefs

Obama smartly divided his speech to six sections, the first three based on political realities dogging relations between the American administration and Muslims, the rest focused on values seen as core to American beliefs. Tackling the issues around violent extremism (which encompassed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran, Obama could then turn to issues of democracy, religious freedoms and women's rights. To be fair, the former administration under George W. Bush called for all three, democracy, religious freedoms and women's rights. Yet there are two differences between the two approaches, firstly Obama's humility and secondly the way in which the Bush's administration mismanaged the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict always discredited any American efforts to push for freedoms and rights.

By speaking openly about the issues that are at the core of Muslim and Arab concerns, Obama is continuing in his efforts to win back moral authority following measures like announcing the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Addressing Arabs and Muslims and confirming Iraq's sovereignty in his speech was also significant; as many still reject the new status-quo in Baghdad.

Obama addressed the stereotypes that Muslims resent so much-rejecting those who say that Islam is not a religion of peace or tolerance. Yet he also spoke of the need to reject stereotypes that are so prevalent amongst many Muslims throughout that world about America, particularly the 'crude stereotype of self-interested empire', as he put it. Here was a recognition of mistrust on both sides; identifying the problem is the first start to solving it.

An even-handed approach was the hallmark to Obama's speech – standing back and seeing it from both sides, whether it was the war in Iraq or women's rights. It is this approach that Obama can best use to tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict. He started by stating America's bond with Israel is 'unbreakable', which was an important way of tackling those Israelis expressing concern of Obama's obvious efforts to work with Arabs and Palestinians to end the bitter conflict..

Rejection of Violence

The speech also had the classic Obama touch of using personal narratives to connect with people; his reference to hearing the call to prayer 'adhan' instantly connected him with over a billion Muslims who are moved by this call. Quoting the Quran, referring to Prophets with the Muslim saying 'peace be upon them' was yet another way to reach out to audiences around the world.

Personal narrative was used in an even more forceful manner when Obama referred to the pain of African-Americans in the United States. In speaking about the sufferings of the Palestinians, the American President made a reference to the fact that 'black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation'. Yet this linkage was beyond showing empathy, it was a message that violence did not end this humiliation or segregation. Obama made clear that 'it was not violence that won full and equal rights', calling on Palestinians to reject violence.

‘Facts to be dealt with’

The rejection of violence and having the courage to embrace peace was a key message in Obama's speech. However, he also made clear that those who pursue violence, and specifically violent extremism, will be met by force. He made clear that Al-Qa’ida hold opinions that are 'not to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with'. Dealing with Al-Qa’ida, or with those 'not to be debated' will undoubtedly pose a challenge to Obama. The consistent American drone attacks on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and the loss of innocent life continue to undermine American efforts to forge better relations with people in that region. This is in addition to the many factors not under the control of the American President, like the outcome of the Lebanese and Iranian elections this month and the Israeli government's stance on settlements and peace.

While Obama himself admitted that 'no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust', this speech will have won Obama credit amongst many quarters to handle the tough challenges ahead. He is a radical's worst nightmare: he has shown that he understands the issues, he has vowed to be patient. He must now show the moral authority to act, even in the face of criticism after so much adulation.

Mina Al-Oraibi is the Washington bureau chief for Asharq Al-Awsat, the international pan-Arab daily.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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