Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama Addresses Islamic World

Quoting extensively from the Koran and the Bible, US President Barack Obama has unveiled his vision of inter-faith reconciliation and outlined an agenda of inclusive partnership on a global scale. In an hour-long speech directed specially at an international Muslim audience, Obama spoke about ways to address the sources of tension in southwest Asia.

Obama, in his Cairo University address, spoke about the broad principles to defuse the Israel-Palestine conflict and ease tensions surrounding Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said the purpose of his address was to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.

The US leader’s soaring rhetoric has been noted in all countries from the day he stepped into the presidential campaign last year, and probably the world hasn’t yet had enough of it. This is one reason why the response to his speeches continues to be unfailingly warm, and so it was in Cairo on Thursday when he called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", seeking to end "this cycle of suspicion and discord". However, the world is a hard place, driven by realpolitik and the perceived interests of states and societies. This is why the US President’s fervent pleas to Europe and Russia — which had been somewhat alienated by his predecessor — for cooperation in different fields have not been translated into new policy directions. With the Muslim world, the issues are far more complex.

Theory of Inevitability
Obama rejected the theory of inevitability of the “clash of civilizations.” He advocated a two-state solution to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, and stressed that the U.S. did not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.
Obama said Washington’s “unbreakable” bond with Israel was “based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

It should be a surprise, therefore, if the "Islamic world" simply shifts gears to embrace peace and goodwill that Obama so tantalisingly offers. The dreadful events of September 11, 2001, initiated not by the US but by Muslim fanatics, and what followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, sharply constricted the space for normal mutual interaction between America and the world of Islam. But it is well to remember that their mutual appreciation was not marked by the spirit of camaraderie even before. It will, therefore, take a lot of doing before the issue takes a new turn. The irony is that for decades most Islamic countries have been ruled by civilian or military dictators who have been pampered by the US.

Mutual Interest and Trust
In seeking the common ground of “mutual interest and mutual trust” between America and the Muslim world, in urging to break mutual stereotypes, Obama’s speech itself was “a new beginning” in that this “dialogue” was long-needed and long-awaited, given the intractable differences steadily entrenched over the last eight years. On the key issues of violent extremism, Israel-Palestine, nuclear weapons, democracy, religious tolerance, women’s rights and economic progress, Obama’s ace was the juxtaposition of the historical context against the current one to admire and solicit understanding, to remind all of their duties. This was visible with regard to Israel-Palestine, extremism, or Iran and the nuclear threat.
Nevertheless, the US fully supported Palestinian rights, including the right to independent statehood. He said Palestinians endured the “daily humiliations” that came with occupation. “So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

Calling upon both sides to live up to their obligations to the “road map” — the blueprint for ending the conflict —Obama slammed Israel for not bringing its settlements project in the occupied Palestinian territories to a halt. He said the US was not seeking “military bases” in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

On Iran, the US President reiterated his offer for dialogue “without preconditions.” He acknowledged Iran’s right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy, but not atomic weapons. Obama advocated universal disarmament, acknowledging the argument that there should be no double standards regarding possession of atomic weapons.

Claims and Grievances

Obama has taken the first step toward contesting claims and addressing grievances, although it is doubtful whether his message of ‘fairplay’ will have an impact on those who are willing to settle for nothing less than the supremacy of Islam over everything else, including non-Muslim nation states. The practitioners of radical Islamism are neither open to debate nor willing to see reason, and this is where the problem essentially stems from. By failing to mention ‘Islamism’ and the threat it poses to the world, including those parts of it which are dominated by Muslims, even once during his long and rambling speech, Obama has not done anybody a favour.

Obama did, of course, speak feelingly about the "daily humiliations" the Palestinians suffer, and this will win him points in the eyes of all ordinary Muslims. But in concrete terms the "Muslim" response to Obama is likely to be guided as much by the jihadi extremists in the Islamic world as by its rulers, who have in any case never refused to do peaceful business with Washington. That the Islamists matter as much as before Obama’s Cairo speech becomes clear from the latest Osama bin Laden message, issued to coincide with the US President’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, rejecting Obama lock, stock and barrel.

Obama did not apologise for but acknowledged US mistakes (such as the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953), that he refused to blame his predecessor but indicated how his administration would be different was just as well, for he spoke from a position of authority, an authority he needs.

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