On Thursday, June 4th, 2009, President Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. It was a momentous occasion for all the Muslims around the world, for it marked a divergent approach to the issues of terrorism, Palestine and Israel, Iran’s nuclear energy program and the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from his maniacal predecessor, George W. Bush. The speech itself is now at the center of discussion between liberals and conservatives of both, the Muslim and Western world, with each side shedding some hope and pessimism. Whatever the opinions of both sides may be, the content of President Obama’s speech, undoubtedly, creates the opportunity for a stronger relationship between the United States and the Muslim world, by focusing on mutual respect and interests.

President Obama started off his speech with a brief introduction and initiated the Islamic greeting, “Assalamu Alaikum,” [1] which, as expected, generated applause. He then proceeded to discuss the brief history between the Muslim world and the West, where the latter was involved in utilizing Muslim states as proxies against Communism:

More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims and a Cold War in which Muslim majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

It is interesting to note at how he wisely refrains from being specific on which Western nations conducted this action. President Obama was also consistent, for as he did not openly criticize the U.S on certain issues, he also refrained from calling the terrorists of 9/11 as “Muslim terrorists” or “Islamic terrorists” as commonly and recklessly used in the mainstream media. He instead, said “violent extremists,” which would probably be a more acceptable way of putting it in the eyes of Muslims, who like all other religious groups, feel that terrorists have no religion.

President Obama acknowledges that only one speech addressed to the Muslim world may not suffice as to solve their mutual problems; instead, they must push for a “a new beginning,” based upon “mutual respect and interests,” just as he mentioned in his inaugural speech. He then strategically mentions his background, a necessary component in bridging differences and alleviating mistrust from the Muslim world. But, President Obama, unlike his predecessors, seems sincere in his desire to relate to Muslims, especially since he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, a Muslim majority country, and has family members that are Muslim, which he stated in an interview with Al-Arabiyya. [2] He says, “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk… So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed” [3]

When it came to Iraq, he explained that the United States needed to pursue measures different from the one his predecessor, George W. Bush, had pursued when dealing with nations the U.S disagrees with: “I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.” This statement struck a chord with David Horowitz, editor of the conservative online magazine FrontPage Magazine, in which he wrote:

And Iraq! This is the war he had opposed as unnecessary and wrong, until now. In Cairo he did not apologize for “Bush’s war” or America’s “occupation.” He said that the Iraqis were better off without Saddam Hussein, which obviously could not have happened without the war – a truism, which for seven years Democrats failed to concede…Obama, speaking in a Muslim capital, defended our presence in Iraq as driven by a desire to give Iraqis their freedom and their country. Bush could not have said it better. [4]

That may not have been how President Obama interpreted it, but it seems like Mr. Horowitz’s is trying to galvanize  some conservative passion for their liberal President. When it came to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, Mr. Horowitz would probably denounce President Obama on his, surprisingly, fair stance. He took a middle path towards the Palestinian-Isreali conflict, by exploring both sides of the issue. He says: “But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.” Of course, the members at the American Israeli Public Affairs committee, an organization which works to strengthen the ties between American and Israel, would probably disagree wholeheartedly. Habib Saddiqui, from Media Monitors, also concedes the same point in his article, Obama’s Speech Tries to Close the Gap with the World of Islam:

His speech will not be welcomed by the Zionist extremists who have hijacked Judaism and have gotten used to taking a free ride on the back of the USA, pushing the country to fight their proxy war in the Middle East. With the kind of blind, robotic support they enjoy amongst the “Amen Corner” within the Capitol Hill, they will not relent from their evil ways to push Obama into fighting yet another war – this time against Iran. [5]

However, President Obama pursued onward and lectured the Palestinians that “[r]esistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.” Surprisingly, the Palestinians of Ni’lin, in the central West Bank, decided to heed to his message and demonstrate, non-violently, against the Israeli wall, but the “army killed a 36-year old Palestinian man and wounded a Palestinian boy, who was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Three others sustained moderate wounds.” [6]

After touching upon those crucial issues, President Obama expressed the idea of creating exchange programs, internships and scholarships for American students as well as students in the Muslim world, in order to gain a better understanding of each other. Moreover, he expressed interests in renewing partnerships with the Islamic Conference, in order “to eradicate polio” and work with “Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.” Surely, Muslims around the world recognize a more humble and benign attitude emanating from the Obama administration than that of the Bush administration: “Muslim shopkeepers, students and even radical groups such as Hamas praised President Barack Obama’s address Thursday as a positive shift in U.S. attitude and tone.” [7]

Indeed, President Obama is seeking to make change around the world, and his effectiveness is yet to be seen, but Muslims can concur, that this speech has given them a clearer understanding of where his administration stands on issues relating to the Muslim world and certainly eliminates the obstacles in the way of forging a new relationship. It is almost certain that Muslims would play a large role in offering their views and their energy to maintaining this relationship after it is securely established. There are long roads ahead, and President Obama has a lot to worry about, but at least his journey has begun in a direction which is fair and mutually satisfying.

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References:

[1] Text of President Obama’s speech

[2] Text of Al-Arabiyya Interview

[3] Text of President Obama’s speech

[4] David Horowitz. ‘An American Leader Stands Up For His Country,’ FrontPage Mag, 05 June, 2009, http://www.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=35117

[5] Habib Saddiqui. ‘Obama’s Speech Tries to Close the Gap with the World of Islam’, Media Monitors, 12 June, 2009, http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/63287

[6]’Israeli Army Kills One, Injures 4 During Non-Violent  Demonstration in Ni’lin.’ International Middle East Media Center, June 5th, 2009, http://www.imemc.org/article/60700

[7] ‘Arab World Sees Positive Shift In Obama Speech,’ MSNBC, June 4th, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31105705/

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