Barack Obama often gives these speeches in aggressively non-sound bite forms. The speech on race doesn't have one line that people recite over and over, nor does his DNC nomination speech, or his speeches in Europe, or his Inauguration speech. He would rather create an event, something that needs to be read or watched in full. This morning's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo was promoted intensely on Facebook and Twitter, and translated into multiple different languages. The intended audiences are overseas, and the ideas complex and not easily boiled down.
Today's speech starts as almost a historical lecture about the challenges between Muslim countries and the United States, and like many Obama speeches, he seeks common ground between the divides, and calls for a new beginning of mutual understanding and shared principles, focusing on what unites and not what divides. And he asks that the two sides listen to each other and be honest with one another.
I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. 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.
He addresses the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israel/Palestine issue, the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis, democracy promotion, religious freedom and women's rights, doing the "on the one hand, on the other hand" shtick with almost all of them. Here's a good example, and a really keen take on the Israel/Palestine debate:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On the other hand, 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.
For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers - for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.
There was a lot of honesty in the speech. Obama asserted that "our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons" to a part of the world where women are less equal. He said that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other" and acknowledged American roles in past overthrows of Muslim governments, particularly in Iran. He said that "No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons," an oblique reference to Israel, and made a hedge on Iranian negotiations by admitting that they "should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."
The President, in other words, challenged the assumptions of both Americans and Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Israelis, and sought common understanding through honesty and a new foundation for dialogue. Some will see the speech as essentially empty
, as if a speech could end all oppression in the Muslim world. And I agree that actions matter, and words fall hollow if not backed up by them; in fact, the rhetoric makes things WORSE if the actions do not match. But I also agree with MJ Rosenberg
, that speaking to Muslims and Arabs as equals does have an impact. Marc Lynch
has a good take as well. Ultimately, Obama seeks to bring the greater Muslim world forward into a new conversation and marginalize those extremists who pervert religion with violence, and refuses to use ideology as a wedge between the divides. In that respect the speech is not as important as its buildup
and the environment created around it. You can see by the Al Qaeda freakout in reaction - as well as conservatives - that they both hate the crackup of the Manichean relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds.
More coverage in NYT
, and even from Thomas Friedman
, though I advise you to read what's inside the quotes from Obama and not the Moustache's turgid prose.
Labels: Barack Obama, democracy promotion, Egypt, human rights, Iran, Israel, Muslims, Palestine, terrorism, women's rights