It has been described as the riskiest speech of his presidency. In addressing Muslim communities around the world, President Barack Obama had to show that he really wants “a new beginning” in relations between them and the United States, while reassuring Americans and traditional allies (read, Israel) that nothing would be given away in terms of their political values and security.
And he did it; the gamble paid off; judging by reported comments, even some of the hardliners either side of the Middle East divide gave him credit for striking the right balance. The American and Western press, heavily primed by the White House, was full of praise, ranging from the fulsome to the cautious. MercatorNet joins the chorus on the more cautious side: he did a good job.
How? In the first place, by showing respect to the faith and religious culture of Muslims. Fate was on his side, of course: having Hussein for a middle name and the history that goes with it already gives the man a foot in the door and he played that card effectively. But Obama and staff had also done their homework on Islam, consulting with various Muslim groups and seasoning the speech with religious references. At Obama’s greeting, “Salaam aleikum”, his audience at Cairo University broke into applause and cheers. It was a great start, and it got better as he quoted from the “Holy Koran” a few times and used the Islamic blessing, “peace be upon you”. This was well done.
Acknowledging “civilisation’s debt to Islam” was an appropriate addition (Pope Benedict did no less during his recent visit to the Holy Land, referring for instance to the splendid mosques which “stand out like jewels across the earth’s surface”), although the speechwriters threw in the contentious claim that Islamic scholars “carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment”. A sop there, perhaps, to the secularists back home as well as to Islamic pride, but it was a small concession in the overall scheme of things.
So, respect for Islam and Muslim cultures, yes, but Obama reminded Muslims that this kind of respect is not a one-way street. Religious freedom was one of the seven issues he identified as sources of tension that have to be confronted. It came in after violent extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, nuclear weapons, and democracy, but before women’s rights and economic development and opportunity. And here also, the president did well.
He appealed to Islam’s “proud tradition of tolerance” (with a tantalising allusion to “the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition”) but was candid about the way it is being “challenged” today:
“Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld – whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.”
This was in contrast with the situation in the United States, which he had sketched early in his speech, noting that there were seven million Muslims in the US participating often at a higher level than other citizens in the American dream of opportunity.
“Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”
And his government would go further, said Obama, to ensure that Muslims were not impeded in practising their religion — for example, by rules about charitable giving that make it harder for them to fulfil zakat, a practice similar to tithing.
In dealing with this and other issues Obama showed what the New York Times called “unusually direct language” , in line with a commitment early in his address to speak the truth. In order to move forward, he said, “we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts” matched by “a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.
“As the Holy Koran tells us, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.”
A distinctive part of Obama’s eloquence is the impression he gives that he is honestly confronting the issues. Even when dealing with abortion during his recent address at the University of Notre Dame, he appeared to do so. Pro-life critics were sceptical about the intellectual rigour, if not the honesty of his appeal for a “fair-minded” but “vigorous” debate on abortion, but it’s undeniable that Obama’s style is consistently respectful, not evasive, thoughtful and open to criticism. It appears to be a model for public discourse.
All the same, “truth” is a demanding word. It calls us beyond the level of “saying what we really think in our hearts”, beyond agreeing to disagree with someone else’s truth, to a quest for objective or ultimate truth. Having declared himself for truth, Obama is intellectually and morally obliged to seek it, not just to speak it; to find out what “the principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” mean not only in the context of US-Muslim relations but in other contexts, including the life of the unborn child, and to achieve consistency.
In this quest he could take no better guide than his precursor on the Middle East pilgrimage trail, Pope Benedict. As MercatorNet pointed out in another recent article, Benedict placed détente with Islam on the firm but lofty ground of reason “suffused with the light of God’s truth”. Only by engaging with truth at that level will dialogue with Muslims find solid “common ground” rather than the mere overlapping of interests on the basis of shifting principles.
For the moment, Obama’s commitment to honest speech has stood him in good stead in the delicate mission of building ideological bridges with Muslim communities and pushing the Israel-Palestine question towards a resolution in which Palestinians (including Christians) would have their own state. If he can turn this speech into action he will be doing well. If he can bring more enlightened reasoning to his speeches he will have done very well indeed.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.