Sunday, August 2, 2009

Whither Obama Cairo Speech?

“I have come in search of a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world”. With these words, the US President Barack Obama started his speech at Cairo University addressing the Islamic world. The long awaited speech unequivocally dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, and focused on six main topics that all in all represent the vision and political approach of the new US Administration toward the Arabs and Muslims and the Middle East. All the issues he spoke of are of concern to us; it behooves us, therefore, as Arabs and Muslims that we read the speech carefully and slowly, so as to visualize our positive engagement with the US Administration clearly and in a way that protects our interests.

Focus of Speech
Before his visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Obama received much advice from think tank institutions and advisers to focus in his speech on the Iranian nuclear threat instead of the issue of Palestine -- the most important Issue to the Arabs and Muslims. However, there are many indications to suggest that Obama's meeting with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdallah Bin-Abd-al-Aziz, has influenced the way the speech was written. No wonder then, that President Obama stressed in his speech the issue of inter-faith dialogue that King Abdallah led, and has, in fact, sent special thanks to the Saudi King for his leadership in bringing people together, instead of dividing them.
The speech was important regarding all regional issues, but the choice to visit Saudi Arabia first reveals that Obama had other objectives in mind, among them oil remains the top priority, due to its importance to the US economy. The US spends almost $700 billion per annum on energy, and this constitutes a big challenge to the Obama Administration, in addition to being a cause for the change in its policy. It is for this reason that the Obama Administration, like its predecessors, gives great importance to Saudi Arabia. If it wishes to do so, Saudi Arabia can contribute positively or otherwise to the solution to the economic problems of the US.
As he started his speech, Obama stressed that there is a tension between the US and the Islamic world that needs their cooperation to deal with on the basis of mutual respect. The US President pointed out that the US and the Islamic world have many interests in common. He quoted many verses from the holy Quran that extol the value of the human being to add force and credibility to his speech. He spoke of past centuries that shaped the relations between the West and the Islamic world that were for the most part relations of cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Talking about the history of his country, he revealed, for instance, that Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the US.

Dealing Regional Issues
Obama displayed a deep sense of understanding of the dynamics of violence in the region by saying that so long we allow the differences between the US and the Islamic world to continue, we play into the hands of those who sow the seeds of hatred instead of peace. This indicates that he is well-aware of what the Washington can do to formulate relations between the Islamic world and the US, in a way that ensures security, stability, and prosperity for all. That is because these relations allow for coexistence and are not mutually exclusive.
It should be pointed out here that President Obama is aware of the Islam-phobia phenomenon that exists in many Western countries, and he undertook to fight against the negative, normative stereotypes of Islam and the Muslims. This constitutes a preliminary step towards creating a healthy climate for mutual respect.
The first issue that should be confronted, according to Obama, is violence and extremism. It should be noted that he did not use the term ‘terrorism’, so as not to give the impression that he equates Islam with terrorism, as some in the West do. Obama said that the US is not at war with Islam.
Obama then moved on to where violence is -- Afghanistan, pointing out that it is a major threat for breeding violence and extremism; and he did not hesitate to State that Al-Qaida is number one enemy, not Islam or the majority of Muslims. This was an important message, coming as it did, after years of arrogance practiced by the Bush Administration.
In the context of his talk about the need to intensify efforts in combating extremism everywhere, President Obama talked about the error which the US committed in launching war against Iraq, and the intention of his Administration to leave Iraq as a free and independent State.

Growing Tension between US and Islamic World
The second issue that constitutes tension between the US and the Islamic world is the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. In the context of his talk about the peace process, he pointed out that he will personally invest in this process and promised to help the parties reach a permanent solution. Here, it should be noted that the President by and large made a balanced reading of the situation. He expressed his sympathy with the historical Jewish experience, but he did not forget to express his sympathy with the right of Palestinian to self-determination in their homeland and their right to a State of their own.
Even before he made his speech, the President displayed great courage in explaining the US position on Israeli settlements, and stated in his speech that the settlements are illegal. This was probably the most courageous position in the history of the US, as far as the issue of Israeli settlements is concerned. The talk about the Arab peace initiative and the need for the Arabs to play the role expected of them in helping the Palestinians indicates understanding of the importance of the Arab role in attaining peace. Moreover, the President stressed that peace between the Arabs and Israelis is in the interest of the US. In other words, he was saying that he has a reading of the US interest in isolation from that of the pro-Israeli forces in Washington. This is a positive development in the US position.

Iranian Nuclear Weapons Issue
The third topic related to nuclear weapons -- and here he was talking about Iran. He explained how the relations between the US and Iran developed, but he sent a message calling on the two parties not to remain prisoners of the past and to look to the future. While proposing to have dialogue with Iran on all issues, he explained that the US remains committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, by military means, if necessary. Meanwhile, he recognized Iran's right, as all other countries, to obtain peaceful nuclear capabilities. Perhaps we should point out here that the US position toward Iran has an Israeli dimension, as Israel sees in Iran's continued efforts at uranium enrichment, a threat to its existence.

Role of Democracy
The fourth topic relates to democracy. Although he said that he preferred democracy; he stressed that he will not impose any form of government on any nation. This was an issue which the Bush Administration tried, but failed to make it work. However, Obama did not ignore the issue altogether. He explained that this position does not diminish the US responsibilities toward governments that represent the will of their peoples. Moreover, in his talk about democracy, he stressed the importance of respect for the freedom of expression and the rule of law, and expressed his belief that elections on their own do not make democracy.

Freedom of Religion and Minority Rights
The fifth topic relates to the freedom of religion and respect for minority rights. Tolerance is part of Islam, Obama said, and he pointed out his personal experience when he was a child in Indonesia, a Muslim country where Christians and others practiced their religion and worshipped freely. He stressed that religious tolerance, which is rooted in Islam, is the spirit that we need today more than at anytime before; but he also called on the West to show tolerance toward Islam. In a reference to some Western countries that prohibit Muslim students from wearing the hijab at school, he pointed out that any Muslim woman should be free to wear the hijab if she wishes to do so. This needs interfaith dialogue, which the Saudi monarch has espoused.

Economic Development
Economic development was the last topic in President Obama's speech. Here, he pointed out the necessity for balance between development and preserving tradition, because as he put it, it is not necessary for the Islamic world to become American in order to achieve development. He pointed out the importance of education and enumerated a number of educational initiatives and funds that he intends to launch, in the course of his strategy of cooperation and engagement with the Islamic world.
On the whole, Obama's speech was important, eloquent, and expressed understanding and empathy with our concerns. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that President Obama has not made any plans to translate his words into policies. While it is true that he was sympathetic, all that he said was words, which if not translated into deeds, in whole or in part, the high expectations will become a source of frustration. Many Muslims will be enthused by Obama's speech; but he has to realize that the Palestinian issue is the most important issue. The Arab and Islamic world will not take the Obama Administration seriously unless they see any immediate and tangible action that enables the Palestinians to establish their State in their national homeland.
Nor will the US succeed in translating its vision (into reality) without the help of Saudi Arabia, which has economic and political power, as well as the necessary international status. Moreover, Saudi Arabia rises above the daily concerns of politics and concentrates on humanitarian issues that go deep to the roots of differences between human beings, and which Obama clearly pointed out.

Assessment
In conclusion, Obama had chosen to visit Saudi Arabia first because of its oil power and influential economic presence, and moreover, he wanted to apprise Saudi Arabia of the new US policy, as Saudi Arabia was critical of the policy of his predecessor and uncomfortable with it. He has also chosen Saudi Arabia because the success of any of his political objectives in the region will need Saudi approval and blessing. Furthermore, he has chosen to apologize to Islam and Muslims because he is aware of the Saudi view of the previous US Administration, which exploited Islam and the war on terrorism to impose its foreign policy, in a way that moderate States and US friends in the region found offensive.

1 comment:

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