Friday, June 05, 2009

in the shadow of the pharoahs...

When President Barack Obama finally announced the location of his much-heralded speech to the Muslim world, the news came as a surprise. As a candidate, Obama had promised to give such an address during his first 100 days in office, as part of an urgent campaign to repair relations between the United States and Muslims. Observers wondered where Obama would go for the potentially historic occasion. Many believed the U.S. president would choose a democratic, Muslim-majority country for the event. Favorites included Jakarta, where Obama lived as a child. Turkey, a U.S. ally, also seemed like a good choice. Even Morocco, one of the more open Arab countries, was considered a longshot.

At Egypt's Cairo University, Obama quoted from the Qu'ran as he expounded on Islam's glories and rights, the legitimate rights of Israel and the Palestinians, Iranian nuclear aspirations, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, women's rights, economic development, and religious rights and democracy in the Muslim world. The address, billed as a fence-mending mission between the United States and Islam, urged those present and the people across the globe viewing the speech on television to enter a new, productive and peaceful chapter in their relationship. Some of the critical comments on President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world neglect this obvious consideration. Conservatives will naturally be irritated by his apologetic tone over Guantanamo and his self-praise for “unequivocally” forswearing torture as U.S. policy. His defense of the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab against (I suppose) Western authorities, such as the French government, which restrict it was a cheap shot. Some governments of Muslim countries also restrict traditional dress, such as successive Kemalist governments in Turkey, and others such as Saudi Arabia insist on sartorial anonymity for women.

The estimated 2,500 in attendance at Cairo University rose to their feet with cheers and sustained applause when Obama entered the Grand Hall of Festivities, and they cheered loudly when he said in Arabic: "Salam aleikum", meaning "peace be upon you". He also mentioned the contentious Israeli-Arab conflict and called for an end to Israeli settlements and Palestinian violence, and a solution that would result in peaceful, co-existing Israeli and Palestinian states. This was an historic and massive direction change in America’s foreign policy. I hope and believe that this speech can positively impact the Muslims’ perceptions about America and Americans’ perceptions about Islam. Just imagine: After a thousand years during which Islam and Western civilization have trod opposite paths in philosophy, science, and the most basic attitudes toward relations between the sexes and the role of work in life, suddenly a young American seems to believe he can conjure up a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world".

Thematically, the speech contained important ideas that, with the power of the U.S. presidency behind them, could just take root enough to matter. He offered to help Muslim communities around the world raise up and empower their women and educate their children in very concrete terms. He sought to equalize the playing field for minorities in Islamic countries whose persecution at the hands of extremists is one of the greater blights on its record as a great religion. And he planned to do all of this from an America that does not dictate any longer its brand of democracy but rather seeks to support governments that reflect the will of their people- governance born through the power of consent.

Islam's worst enemies are within it. If wealthy Gulf Arabs want peace for Palestinians with Israel, why don't they take a fraction of their profligate spending (in nightclubs in Geneva, at bars in London, at boutiques in Milan) and redirect it to rebuilding Palestinian enclaves with schools, hospitals, food-production facilities, and manufacturing plants? We might then have durable peace possible in the Middle East...

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