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Obama’s Historic Cairo Speech

For awhile now I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on Obama now that we’re a few months into his presidency and we now have a much clearer picture of what kind of president he’ll be. Presidents often step back from or abandon many of the promises made or sentiments expressed on the campaign trail, and Obama has been no exception. During the campaign, he called for reform of Wall Street, but his appointment of Tim Geithner to the post of treasury secretary has ensured that no significant change will really occur, and that the boom/bust economic cycle of Ronald Reagan will continue to make the wealthy wealthier and the middle class poorer. During the campaign, he said he would end the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy but hasn’t lifted a finger to make that change even though as commander-in-chief he could easily issue a standing order that the policy is not to be enforced until legislation to overturn it goes through Congress. During the campaign, he called for openness and transparency in government, but he won’t allow the release of more photos from American prisons depicting torture.

And most grievously of all, during the campaign he called for the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and a renewed commitment to the rule of law with regards to the treatment of POWs, but his actions have been nothing more than a P.R. campaign. Guantanamo is a symbol of America’s violation of human rights, and by closing it Obama is certainly winning points around the world, but meanwhile the detention centre at Bagram Airforce Base, which is basically just Gitmo in another time-zone, will remain open. Not only that, but for some of the prisoners still at Guantanamo, those who fall into that odd category of definitely dangerous but unable to be convicted due to lack of evidence (or inadmissible evidence because it was obtained through torture), Obama is willing to keep them detained indefinitely without a trial, lest he let them go and they attack Americans. I understand perfectly well why he doesn’t want to let any dangerous detainees go even if the law demands it—a terrorist attack by a former Gitmo detainee released by Obama is the Republican party’s wettest of wet dreams, and Obama doesn’t want to take that political risk. But by refusing to take the risk, by endorsing a policy of preventive detention, he is not only blatantly violating his oath to defend the Constitution, but he is affirming the worst of the worst of Bush’s sins—of claiming for the President the rights of a despot to hold anyone in prison for any amount of time for any reason, thus rolling the progress of human rights back several centuries. When news of this came out, I was just about ready to give up hope entirely, to abandon my already tepid support of Obama and dismiss him as just another bullshit hypocrite American president, superior to Bush only in terms of style while effectively identical in substance.

Then I watched the speech he gave in Cairo. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by it. In fact, I expected to be somewhat bored by it as I’ve often been while watching other speeches he’s given on issues such as the economy. But this speech was not only completely riveting from beginning to end (foreign policy is just inherently far more interesting to me than economics anyway), but it was actually downright inspiring. For someone who spends a great deal of time dwelling on the question of whether humanity will ultimately destroy itself or come together in common interest, to witness this moment in history actually gave me some hope that maybe, just maybe, it will be the latter.

Before explaining myself, I want to address the most basic and common objection I’ve been reading online, both from columnists and journalists reporting on the reactions of Muslims around the world, which is that it may have been a nice speech but words ultimately mean nothing without the actions to back it up. Of course, it is completely true that actions are more important than words, but in many cases words do matter, especially when spoken by the most powerful man in the world. Bush’s words certainly mattered when he called the Global War on Terror a “crusade”, describing it as a “clash of civilizations”. That set the tone for 7 years of jihad, of violent Islamic radicals easily recruiting angry young men into their ranks to fight a Holy War against the Evil American empire, led by a man who, in his own words, was on a “crusade” against Islamic civilisation.

But now along comes Barack Hussein Obama with his middle name and his background of life experience within the Muslim world, saying:

No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be 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.

Obama understands that this is only a speech, and that he can’t expect the Muslim world to just forget and forgive America’s transgressions just because the president quotes the Koran a few times. That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to criticise the speech because it was only words—of course it was only words: it was a speech. The goal was nothing more than to set a new tone, to open up a dialogue between the current administration and the Muslim world, and to demonstrate to Muslims around the world that just as Islam is not the stereotype of a violent fanatical religious cult bent of the destruction of all things good and decent, nor is the United States the stereotype of an evil empire bent on world dominance and the elimination of all local cultures and traditions. Those who fault Obama for merely talking about improving the relationship between East and West are missing the whole point—in order to improve the relationship you have to start by talking.

And as the speech demonstrated, Obama is willing to talk. He raised every major issue, every “source of tension” between America and the Islamic world, when most American presidents wouldn’t go near them—at least not until near the end of their second term. Obama took the biggest risk of his presidency so far by addressing these points: by announcing his positions openly in front of the world as opposed to keeping them behind closed doors, he opens himself up to be measured by history in terms of how well he lives up to the promises he made and the sentiments he expressed. Just as Americans are measuring him in terms of how his actions as president measure up to his words on the campaign trail, the world will ultimately measure him in terms of how his actions in the Middle East measure up to the aspirations he expressed in this speech.

I will now comment on each issue he raised, starting with the most obvious obstacle standing in the way of peace—violent extremism:

America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.

This is essentially Obama’s explanation for America’s current actions in the Middle East, and it’s one that most reasonable Muslims can probably accept. Personally, I don’t believe that our presence in Afghanistan is making us safer, but I don’t have all the facts so I don’t know. And while I believe that the first duty of the President is to protect the Constitution (it was Bush who expressed the notion that the president’s primary responsibility was the safety of the American people), this at least serves as a legitimate, consensus-seeking explanation for our actions, as opposed to Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric.

Obama also drew a distinction between Afghanistan as a war of necessity and Iraq as a war of choice. And again, while I believe that Afghanistan was also a war of choice, this is something I’m glad to hear our president say to the Muslim world. He also repeated his commitment to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2012, thus inviting himself to be held accountable by the Muslim world and by history if he fails to live up to this pledge.

Secondly, Obama turned to the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, first ensuring he maintain the support of the Jewish community by invoking the Holocaust and imploring Muslims to stop blindly hating Jews, but then bravely expressing the other point of view:

It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come 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.

As someone far more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the Israelis, I was extremely happy to hear the American president speak like this, and not to shy away from the word “occupation” when describing Israel’s actions. But it’s not the words themselves that fill me with hope, it’s the simple fact that he’s saying them now, at the beginning of his presidency, while most would wait until nearing the end of their second term to go near this problem, lest they invite historical judgment based on their success or failure in brining peace to middle east. Because the odds are so overwhelmingly tilted towards failure, the president has demonstrated extreme testicular fortitude by jumping right in at the beginning of his presidency, basically saying to the world, “I take responsibility for this—if peace between Israel and Palestine fails during my presidency, I will own that failure.”

Obama spoke directly to the perpetrators of violence on both ends, and delivered my favourite line of the speech when he said:

It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

It is one of the most simple, most obvious, and yet most often ignored truths in history—violence against innocents is never justified. No matter how noble your cause, if you seek to advance it through means like firing rockets indiscriminately, kidnapping people and chopping off their heads, throwing acid on the faces of little schoolgirls, or let’s say, holding people in prison indefinitely without the opportunity to stand trial, you have sacrificed your moral authority and your side no longer has any more of a right to prevail than your enemies. More than anything else he said, this part of Obama’s message must be taken to heart by everyone involved in these conflicts, including Obama himself.

Obama continued by addressing nuclear weapons, explaining why it would be dangerous for the region and the entire world if Iran acquired such a weapon and thus began an arms race in this volatile region, and confronted head-on the charge of hypocrisy that immediately follows from such a claim. He renewed America’s commitment to elimination all nuclear weapons including its own, thus further inviting history to judge him based on how well he lives up to this pledge.

One of the most eloquent passages came during his discussion of democracy. After acknowledging the controversy over America’s imposing of democracy in Iraq by clearly stating that no system of government can or should be imposed on a nation by any other, he said:

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

This is spoken with humility and respect, and is exactly the kind of thing I would want my president to say on behalf of myself and all of the American people. He does not insist that American-style democracy should be adopted by everyone, but only expresses the conviction that we all share the belief that people ought to have a say in the way they are governed, and should be free as possible to speak their mind and to live as they choose. Again, Obama would do well to listen to his own words when it comes to issues such as gay marriage or Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, as even in America there are groups of people who still don’t have the freedom to live as they choose.

The fifth issue Obama addresses is religious freedom, saying little more than that everyone ought to be free to believe as they choose. Of course I agree, but I don’t think Obama goes far enough in condemning religious intolerance. Indeed, he was much more generous to the Islamic faith in general than I would be—there are just as many Koranic verses condoning violence and intolerance as there are supporting peace and understanding—but I’m not dumb enough to expect or to hope that the American president get into any kind of theological debate. Had Obama said anything that might have been perceived as the least bit critical of Islam as a religious faith, his entire goal in reaching out to the Muslim world have been undermined. It’s a shame that this is the case, and it underscores how difficult it will be to work with nations and governments still adhering to such a stringent belief system, but Obama said only as much as he could say on the subject.

Obama also took a lot of criticism by not going far enough in talking about his sixth point—women’s rights. He merely pointed out that our daughters have just as much to contribute to society as our sons, and that countries where woman are well-educated are far more prosperous than those where they are oppressed. Of course it would have been a lot more satisfying had he strongly condemned this oppression, but Obama knows that when it comes to women’s rights issues, he must tread very carefully or he will alienate an entire segment of the Muslim population that would perceive his denouncement of their patriarchal beliefs as an attack on their religion and culture. So as much as I may despise the way women are treated in these cultures, I must accept the need for the president not to press this point too hard too early on.

Obama’s final point had to do with globalisation, and I believe he once again sent exactly the right message:

I know that for many, the face of globalization is contradictory. The Internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and changing communities. In all nations – including my own – this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we will lose of control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities – those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

This is exactly the fear we all have about globalisation, and an issue I will no doubt witness firsthand as I travel the world during these changing times. How much uniqueness of culture will be retained from country to country? Will travelling the world feel less and less like seeing different and exotic lands and more and more like seeing only different departments of the same worldwide multinational corporate empire? It’s already the case that you can’t go anywhere that doesn’t have a McDonald’s, and that saddens me, but it would be nice to believe Obama’s assertion that “There need not be contradiction between development and tradition.” We’re still at the relative beginning of this period of worldwide coming-together, and its ultimate effects on local cultures and traditions remains to be seen.

In closing his speech, Obama returns to the loftly, high-minded rhetoric he is so famous for, the kind of rhetoric that gave me hope in his presidency in the first place. Returning to the question of whether there is any chance for the long-term survival of humanity, I remember Bush’s warning about the “axis of evil” and how it seemed to me at the time that catastrophic destruction was inevitable. Now I sit and watch the American president standing in front of the world and using rhetoric that I thought was only used by high-minded idealists such as myself, imploring the world to think about itself in from a much broader point-of-view, for humans to think of themselves as part of a collective much greater than all of us individually:

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

As a child I imagined a president who would unite the world in peace. The prologue to my book describes such a man, but even in my book I only imagined he would appear on the world stage after some kind of disastrous third world war and many centuries of chaos. But to see Obama standing there and using these words, I could not help but think that perhaps there is a chance for us to avoid that catastrophe and start coming together in peace right now, at this moment in history.

The essence of Obama’s message to the rest of the world is simply this: Grow up. Abandon your juvenile beliefs and your petty grudges. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Understand that you are responsible for the people lower than you in the social or political power structure, and operate with their interests in mind instead of just your own. Most importantly, consider the world you are leaving behind for your children, and how if you are unwilling to put the past behind you and extend an open hand to those that have offended you in the past, you are dooming your children to repeat the cycle of violence that you are perpetuating.

Finally, I will end with a reflection on Obama’s pronouncement that the heart of every religion, the Golden Rule, is essentially a “faith in other people”. He did not say “faith in a higher power” and this I believe is probably the most significant philosophical proposition in his speech. I’ve read no commentary about that particular line so it’s safe to say that its significance was missed by the media, and I believe more attention should be paid to it.

Faith in a higher power entails a lack of responsibility on our part to do any of the things Obama calls on us to do. If Allah demands the destruction of Israel, that’s the end of the story. If God intends to ends the world in fire and brimstone and save Christians alone, it’s pointless to even try to extend an olive branch. Faith in a higher power leads to a concern only for those in your circle, whether it’s your family, your local community, your nation, or your religion. When you place your faith in a higher power, your central purpose in life is to do whatever you believe is necessary to gain the favour of that higher power, often at the expense of those you belief are in disfavour. Faith in a higher power is anathema to the success of humanity.

Faith in other people, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. A faith in other people entails an unspoken agreement among all human beings to take responsibility for the welfare of all others. Whether or not God exists, it is up to us to determine the course of our own destiny. We must do what we can within our own sphere of influence to make the world a more just and peaceful place, and have faith that others are doing the same thing within their own spheres. Faith in other people is essential to the success of humanity. Without it, we’re only sitting back and waiting for civilisation to destroy itself. If we don’t believe we have the ability to overcome the challenges we face, that we don’t have the capacity to tear down the walls that divide us and embrace our common interests, then we never will.

So it remains to be seen whether Obama’s words will have a real effect on the attitudes of the rest of the world towards the United States and towards humanity in general. I am not so starry-eyed and naïve that I believe there is any strong likelihood of success, of any realisation of Obama’s vision of “a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected” but I do appreciate that the most powerful man in the world is expressing such a vision. No other candidate in the 2008 race would have been so bold.

As I often say, we are standing at the most crucial hinge moment in human history, a time period from which we will either spiral into complete economic, environmental, and violent disaster, or rise to meet the challenges we face and reshape humanity under the principles of freedom, sustainability, and peace. Because those who actually hold power tend to have little interest in these principles, I believe our chances are slim. However, because the masses of people throughout the world do tend to believe in these principles, and because people like Barack Obama are out there promoting them, I no longer believe we are inevitably doomed. As much as I despise some of the choices he has made since entering office, I think that in the long-term when we look back at the Obama administration and consider the speech he gave this week in Cairo, we may just see that he was in fact the right man with the right message at the right time.

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