Obama Presents a Bold
Vision for Change to Come
Posted: June 5, 2009 11:20 AM
In his historic address to the Islamic World from Cairo, Obama demonstrated that he is more than a charismatic orator. He proved that he is a sensitive courageous world leader who has a vision for making peace and building a better world. Obama extended a steady hand of friendship to Muslims; with dignity, confidence and yet with sincerity and humility. He presented the challenges of having to jointly work together to build such better world. He recognized sources of tension, recent and historical, but he called for moving beyond the past, ending the viscous cycle of suspicion and discord and called for a new beginning. Obama made it clear that he rejected stereotyping against Muslims but he also expected Muslims to drop their stereotyping of the US as an empire which only seeks its self-interest. He cited the great contributions of Islam to human civilization but reminded Muslims with the great achievements of his own country, the United States of America.
As expected, Obama stressed his commitment to fight extremists and to withdraw from Iraq. He vowed to help Pakistan and Afghanistan economically. Obama, however, said things no other president, American or otherwise, has ever dared to say. For instance he spoke of his dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He invited Hamas, an entity which is still on U.S. list of terrorist organizations, to take responsibility in uniting Palestinian people but demanded that it should desert armed resistance seeking just settlement through peaceful struggle. He also invited Iran for a new beginning without preset conditions, recognizing the negative role which the U.S. had played in overthrowing Mosaddegh's democratically elected government in the 50's.
On the issue of freedom of faith, Obama frankly mentioned the disturbing tendency amongst some Muslims to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's and called for upholding religious diversity -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Christian Copts in Egypt. What his eloquent speech did not say but indirectly implied, is that Muslims must pay more attention to what is being taught at their schools, preached at their mosques and communicated in their media. But the same message of tolerance should in fact also go to keen followers of Orthodox Judaism and Christianity; in Israel, the United States and the rest of the world.
Obama made it clear that the United States will not impose any specific form of democracy on countries of the region, but he affirmed his belief that basic human rights and freedoms are universal. He stressed that the United States will support countries which seek modernization and peaceful democratic transformation. He stressed his commitment to women's rights and listed a number of programs to empower women. He finally addressed the issue of economic cooperation and presented several programs designed to foster a spirit of partnership.
The speech was met with mixed reactions but there was a general consensus that his address was visionary, sincere, frank, fair, balanced and uplifting. He inspired his audience and left the people with hope that change is possible. He did not try to please the audience by only saying things they would like to hear omitting positions or commitments that may be problematic or unpopular. For instance he described U.S. bonds with Israel as unbreakable and accused those who question the Holocaust of being ignorant and hateful. More than 2,500 people present in the domed auditorium interrupted Obama's 55-minute speech thirty times with enthusiastic applauds then finally gave him a stand-up ovation as he was ready to leave the stage. The youth in particular received Obama's address with great enthusiasm. In the middle of the speech one member of the audience shouted, "We love you" and Obama responded spontaneously, "I love you too".
The event, which was co-hosted by Al Azhar and Cairo Universities, was held in the main auditorium of Cairo University. The huge hall which hosts three floors was almost full. The invitations of this event were hand-delivered by messengers acting on behalf of Egypt's Presidential Authority and included flags of the United States and Egypt on both sides of the card with Arabic text printed on one side and English on the other. The audience arrived at 10 a.m. but had to wait for three hours as President Obama's speech started at 1 p.m.!
The audience included Ahmed Nazif, the Prime Minister of Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Egyptian top officials, actors, celebrities, foreign diplomats, politicians, activists and students from Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries, in addition to staff of the US embassy in Cairo. A large number of Muslim and Christian religious scholars and leaders were seated in the front rows acknowledging the role which faith can play in making peace or promoting conflict in this part of the world where many people are keenly religious. The event received heavy coverage from local and international media organizations and Obama's entire visit was televised on air through several Egyptian TV channels, public and private. For the first time, Egyptian Authorities allowed bloggers to cover an event of this nature online.
Outside Cairo University was a small demonstration where mainly American and European protestors called on Obama to stop supporting Israel's siege of Gaza. This demonstration was obviously tolerated by the security forces in an effort from the Egyptian regime to remind Obama of the order of priorities! Shops and Kiosks in the area surrounding Cairo University were instructed to shut down for the day. Cairo streets, usually crowded with heavy traffic, were largely empty as most businesses and schools took the day off. On why the speech was scheduled for Thursday and not on Friday, which is the weekend holiday in Egypt, some speculated that the reason was to avoid potential angry riots organized by extremist Islamists which could have erupted following Friday's prayers springing out of the security authorities' control.
The audience, mostly Egyptians, loved Obama and admired his charisma. Obama used quotations from the Quran, Bible and Talmud several times. He showed depth in understanding the complex history and problems of the region. "He did not refer to the printed speech not even once!" many people made that remark, funnily enough, to add to Obama's legendary presentation skills. Most of the audience present in the auditorium or following the televised speech from home did not realize that Obama was reading the speech from transparent teleprompters strategically located on both sides in front of the podium. "Afla7 in Sadak" meaning "he will do well if he stays true to his words and delivers on his promises," this was another comment shared by many of those who followed the speech. They loved what Obama said and wished that there was a way to realize these aspirations of peace and prosperity.
His strong commitment for peace and human rights made one of the audience members say that "Obama is just too courageous! He is the bravest U.S. President since Kennedy. I hope he does not meet his tragic fate." Obama, however, stressed that building this desirable future must happen through partnership. That it is a joint responsibility and not a task that he or the United States can bring about alone.
Critics, including members of "Kifaya" movement, however, regarded Obama's visit as an attempt to bestow undeserved legitimacy over a repressive regime and saw Obama's speech addressing the Muslim world as no more than a PR stunt designed to deceive Muslims and Arabs. One day before his visit Obama had described Mubarak as a pillar of wisdom and stability in the region. "Kifaya," the word literally means "enough," which seeks to end Mubarak's 28-year authoritarian grip on power, viewed the visit and the address as a gimmick which aimed at distracting Arabs and Muslims from the fact that the United States main interests in the region are to guarantee Israel's security and supremacy and to ensure that the U.S. controls the region's vast oil reserves through oppressive regimes which are merely puppets dancing to US commands. Obama's speech was therefore weak on democracy and human rights by design. Some critics saw that the overwhelming enthusiasm with which Egyptians greeted Obama reflected a deficit in leadership in their own constituency and a longing for a Messiah who can deliver them out of their long suffering.
In the critics' eyes, Obama demanded that Palestinians give up armed struggle without promising any solid policy changes. Obama did not promise for instance to end an unnecessary U.S. tradition of blocking Security Council resolutions whenever the hint of blame was to be placed on Israel. This decades-long unfortunate tradition is seen as an American obstruction of international justice. As for helping to reach the desired end of a 2-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, what Obama had to offer was merely his "patience", thus possibly endorsing endless rounds of fruitless negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Obama confirmed his commitment to strongly oppose illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. This position however, was not accompanied by material policies and consequences should Israel fail to observe international law. The United States placed very stringent regulations on fund raising which may be used to finance extremist Islamist organizations. Obama did not offer or contemplate any remotely similar regulations designed to block fundraising activities in the United States if the funds would be funneled to Israel to finance the building of illegal Israeli settlements. Currently these generous donations from unsuspecting U.S. citizens are used to rebuild even bigger settlements as soon as the Israeli government dismantles some, making a mockery of the American and Israeli administrations' commitment in this regard. Further, Obama did not address the issue of reforming the United Nations, the Security Council structure and its decision-making process or talk about his vision of erecting an effective international justice system at some point in the future.
Critics accuse Obama's speech of being low on substance. Merely a collection of words nicely put together. But words is what speeches are usually made of. Today's address, however, may provide a starting point for a switch of the mindset, a change of heart and a paradigm shift. The dialogue has just started and today's words can provide a new way of thinking our common problems and mutual interests. It may serve as the preamble of an informal collective contract in which each party, Muslims, Arabs, Israelis and Americans must play its role and honor its commitments and obligations.
At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. Everyone will be watching closely for signs of real change in U.S. policy in days and months to come. Muslims will expect results and actions. Only words were released today. Words which signify dreams of a better future. But if these words and dreams are embraced and nurtured, they can grow and blossom. These aspirations can guide a continued dialogue and set a road map for a better future. Actions and policies to follow, however, is what will make these words and dreams more than rhetoric and turn them into design specifications for a truly better world.
As Obama's Sincerity
Touches the Hearts
Of the People