By Muqtedar Khan
Director of Islamic Studies, University of Delaware
President Obama’s address to the Muslim World on June 4 from Cairo was truly transformative in intent and effect. It was not a policy speech and did not seek to outline policy initiatives. It was a philosophical attempt to diffuse the mutual distrust and animus that undergirds U.S. relations with the Muslim World.
Even though it was billed as a speech to Muslims, it was readily apparent that it addressed both the Islamic World and the Western World. President Obama not only invited Muslims to rise above prejudice and take a second look at America, but also demonstrated to Americans and the rest of the world how to abandon jaundiced eyes and see Islam and Muslims as they really are and not how they are projected in popular discourses.
Never has an American President spoken with such eloquence, compassion, understanding and empathy to the Muslim World.
There is no doubt that Obama gets the Muslim World. It is also obvious from the responses from around the world that except for some Israelis and its supporters and Al Qaeda, President Obama’s words resonated profoundly with Muslim and non-Muslim audiences everywhere.
Al Qaeda is understandably disturbed that Obama’s charm offensive may put an end to them more expeditiously than any military assault. Some Israelis currently in power do not like the fact that an American President is so willing to acknowledge that Palestinians are suffering and have as much right to a state of their own as do Israelis. Fortunately both are tiny minorities.
President Obama’s speech was comprehensive and brutally honest except when he spoke about America’s support for democracy. Even now America is aligned with dictators and monarchs and opposes elected governments and groups in Iran, Gaza and Lebanon. He spoke about the dangers of extremist violence, about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict, about religious tolerance and religious freedoms, about gender equality and development.
President Obama’s intellectual posture was very sophisticated and subtle. He went far beyond any American President in making concessions to Muslims without ever abandoning traditional American foreign policy values. For example he recognized that the “situation of the Palestinian people was intolerable” and made an unprecedented promise that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” But he also firmly reiterated that America’s bond with Israel was “unbreakable” and that aspirations for a Jewish homeland were “undeniable”.
President Obama has found the language to transcend the hitherto zero sum conundrum of Israeli-Palestinian issue. If he can translate this into policy, then perhaps we can finally witness the emergence of an independent Palestinian nation thriving side by side with a secure Israel.
One element of the discourse was Obama’s portrayal of himself as a man comfortable with faith. He quoted from the Qur’an, the Torah and the Bible, and this will go far in undoing the widely held Muslim perception of America as a God-less materialist society.
The speech acknowledges America’s mistakes but promised change and hope. President Obama took the two themes of change and we can from his campaign to Cairo. But as he himself and his press secretary have acknowledged, a speech alone cannot transform a relationship suffering from decades of abuse. Words alone from now on will rapidly loose their meaning and value unless accompanied by action that vindicates their promise.
Three key issues will serve as hurdles to President Obama’s determination to mend U.S. relations with Muslims, reduce anti-Americanism and the threat of terrorism. They are basically the three occupations – Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.
U.S. military presence in Iraq is a constant reminder to Muslims of America’s vindictive invasion of an Arab state that we now euphemistically call as “war of choice”. American operations in Afghanistan continue to cause innocent civilian casualties underscoring the Muslim belief that the West has no regard for Muslim security and Muslim lives. Finally, the continued misery of over three million Palestinians under Israeli military occupation of West Bank and blockade of Gaza makes it impossible for Muslims to reconcile their anger towards the U.S. who they see as the primary and sole sponsor of Israel.
From now on how President Obama deals with these three conflicts will shape Muslim perceptions of the US and not how he talks about them.
Clearly there are many reasons why many Muslims are miserable. They include economic underdevelopment, absence of democracy, systematic human rights abuses by Muslim regimes, Muslim on Muslim violence and intolerance. Their leaders, who lack vision, integrity and purpose, have long abandoned Muslims. President Obama through this speech may not have conquered Muslim hearts and minds, but he certainly has ignited hope of a peaceful and dignified future.
As an American Muslim, as I listened to President Obama today, I truly felt that he was my Amir (leader). Indeed, no leader has inspired so much confidence in the future, and so much pride in America as has Barrack Hussein Obama.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.