Thursday, June 4, 2009


I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
So spoke President Obama today in Cairo. He touched on the bitter legacy of Cold War interference by the United States on the legitimate aspirations of the Islamic world. (Tim Weiner documents this sorry chapter in American international "relations" in his excellent book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.) From the 1956 CIA-sponsored coup in Iraq to the failed attempt to overthrow President Sukarno of Indonesia, American policy towards the Islamic world in the 1950's sowed seeds of distrust that persist today. And this doesn't even touch on the historic failure to broker a viable Palestinian state.

Obama went on the recognize
civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam at places like Al-Azhar that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's renaissance and enlightenment.

It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires, timeless poetry and cherished music, elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.
From here, Obama turned to the positive impact Muslims have had on American domestic life:
They have fought in our wars. They have served in our government. They have stood for civil rights. They have started businesses. They have taught at our universities. They've excelled in our sports arenas. They've won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same holy Quran that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, kept in his personal library.
He then laid out the specific issues on which he called for universal cooperation:
  • "Violent extremism in all its forms," specifically referring to Al-Qaeda and 9/11. Obama quoted the Quran to the effect that "whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as it if has killed all mankind...whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind." He used this as a context to defend the U. S. role in Afghanistan and to promote development aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan "to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who've been displaced." He reiterated his commitment to withdraw American troops from Iraq while recognizing that "today America has a dual responsibility to help Iraq forge a better future and to leave Iraq to Iraqis." Finally, Obama restated his orders to close Guantanamo and his prohibition of torture by Americans.

  • "The situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world" and "America's strong bonds with Israel." He stressed the United States' commitment to Israeli security and touched on the subject of Holocaust Denial: "Six million Jews were killed, more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless. It is ignorant, and it is hateful."

  • "Preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East." Obama reaffirmed two things: "America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons" and the right of any nation including Iran "to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

  • Democracy: "No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other. " After making this point, Obama emphasized that
  • 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. These are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
    Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear. Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments, provided they govern with respect for all their people.
  • Religious freedom: Obama called on Muslims to remember and apply their faith's historic commitment to religious tolerance, then added that
  • Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which people protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That's why I'm committed to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.
  • Women's rights: "Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity, men and women, to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal. And I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice."

  • Economic development and opportunity. After recognizing the psychic stresses and pressures of globalization and modernity, Obama stated his belief that development and tradition were not mutually exclusive. Obama called on a new commitment by Arab nations to education and innovation. He then announced a group of programs designed to engage Americans with Islam and the Middle East in areas outside of energy production.
Finally, Obama announced "a new global effort with the organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health."

In his peroration, Obama finally called for the establishment of a Palestinian state and stressed the importance of discovering and acting upon common bonds to advance the interests of humanity. He asked that we "choose the right path, not just the easy path" and reminded listerers that "there is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion, that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us." After quoting from the Quaran, the Torah, and the Bible, Obama closed with Islam's great blessing: May God's peace be upon you.

It was, as Obama said himself, only a speech. But it was a speech by an American president that understood and spoke directly the complexities of the Middle East and that readily admitted to the injustice of past American actions there. That alone makes it significant...

The speech played well in one Cairo cafe and appears to have struck a nerve with Al Qaeda...American Muslims applauded the speech as an important first step...Israeli reaction was mixed, ranging from ""his hatred for the people of Israel led him to deliver a most dangerous speech" to "all in all, it's not bad" to "it's one of the most important speeches ever delivered, a key speech for changing the climate in the Middle East..."

Just A Song: Steve Earle's "Mercenary Song" combines the tradition of the story song with the masculine ideal of a laconic man who "does what he's best at" regardless of the danger or personal cost. More here...

NOLA Happenings: Summer is around the corner and festival season is heating up. You might want to start with the Opelousas Spice and Music Festival ("There's No Place Hotter!). The festival poster (right) is appropriate art for any kitchen anywhere...Then there's the 27th annual Buggy Festival at Church Point...Hustle and you'll still have time for the Sabine Bluegrass Festival...


Foxessa said...

You know, of course, that Flaubert spent some exciting times in Cairo ....

New Orleans, New Orleans, so much may or may not happen re Our Horrible our Much Loved New Orleans!

Vaquero was home from NO yesterday about 45 minutes when the buzzer to our apt. buzzed. It was someone we spend little time with in NO because of --- but here she was. In NYC you NEVER EVER do this -- just show up and expect to be let in. She used to live here and she knows that. But then, there's that --- problem.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

BTW, I was listening to a native Arabic speaker speaking of the speech, who told us why bush's way with language didn't translate well into Arabic, and why Obama's did.

That was pretty interesting!

Love, c.

K. said...

Talk about stretch: Bush barely translated into English.

As is always the case with Obama, I'm terrifically impressed with his ability to synthesize any number of complex historical issues and articulate them with insight and compassion. As far as I'm concerned, he could have gone farther in some areas -- especially a Palestinian state and women's rights -- but the overall he demonstrated a historic respect Arab self-determinism while universalizing the Western ideal of democracy.

Linda Pendleton said...

K. You're right about Bush LOL.

Obama is amazing. The impact he seems to have on the world is impressive. Before I heard his speech today I was reading Lincoln's Second Inaugurial Address, especially the last part, (for a book I'm working on) and commented to a friend how historic it was and how Lincoln had so much empathy. And now 144 years later, we have another President with empathy.

ZenYenta said...

I'm still catching up. Work's been super demanding and the news keeps happening. I think I've heard most of the speech by now and it was terrifically impressive. I don't know how all this is going to turn out, but if any American president can make a positive difference it's the one we have right now.

Annette said...

Beautiful insight.. you break it down very well. I heard someone say yesterday that Bush could have made this speech and I fell out of my chair.. after I picked myself up I wondered where they had been the last 8 years, because the Bush I had known could never have made anything like that speech, as you said he didn't have the language skills for one thing, for another he didn't have the education or the history.

Thanks for sharing your words.

Scrumpy said...

How refreshing it is to have an intelligent president to represent us all.