By Osman Siddique
former U.S. ambassador
President’s Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University is a great start. But now what? Is the Muslim world going to step up?
As an American Muslim, born in Bangladesh and appointed this country’s first Muslim ambassador, I was quite simply overcome when my President pledged to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” This was not a speech I ever thought to hear, not in rhetoric, nor in substance. To hear the American President quote the Qur’an, to see the respect he affords my religion, to watch him pay tribute to a culture that spans the globe – this was a transformative moment.
Or, I certainly hope it will be. Because now it’s Islam’s turn.
In Cairo, the President frankly and honestly addressed issues central to the concerns of the Muslim world, the umma. He acknowledged Iran’s right to “peaceful nuclear power,” spoke of the need for religious protections, reminded us that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality,” and called for democratic freedoms. And he spoke very clearly about the need for a just and peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many in the umma are ready and willing to step forward on almost all of these issues. But on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, most have been happy to let others do the work. That’s got to change.
President Obama’s speech in Cairo was a historic development. In spite of political sensitivities and cultural difficulties, he spoke truths that many have not wanted to broach: “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” he said, and “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” He demanded, unequivocally, that settlement building stop.
The burden of responsibility now rests with the Muslim nations, from Indonesia to Somalia and in between – not just the Arab world, which makes up only a small part of the umma, but all Muslims, everywhere.
If we are truly committed to the best interests of the Palestinian people, we must now reciprocate the President’s gesture, and move the marker forward ourselves. There can no longer be any argument about the permanence of Israel, there can no longer be a zero-sum approach to the conflict. What is good for Israel is not necessarily bad for the Palestinians, and vice-versa – and what is good for Israel and the Palestinians both is a mutually acceptable, two-state resolution of their heart-rending conflict.
This is not an opportunity that will come often, and the Muslim world must now rise to the occasion. The Arab League has presented its Peace Initiative, offering full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state – now the League must meet with the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and come out with an integrated approach to the issue, one that acknowledges the needs and responsibilities of both sides, and actively supports engagement with US peace efforts.
Engagement, dialogue, discussion – all these presume that we will not always agree. The Muslim world will have to be as honest with the President as he is being with us. We will no doubt present him with challenges he has yet to consider, matters that carry great weight and cannot be ignored.
But discussion is, at heart, a two-way street. It is an acknowledgement that we all have something to gain by treating each other with respect. President Obama has stepped forward, and started the conversation – the onus is now on us. In Egypt, Syria, and Jordan; in Senegal, Mozambique, and Bangladesh, national leaders and religious dignitaries need to step up and say with one voice: Mr. President, yes we can.
Yes we can. We can recognize our shared responsibility, we can evolve beyond old habits, we can play an active role in resolving an issue which has torn at our hearts for more than 60 years.
If the umma engages with this President, we will be serving not only the Palestinian people, we will be serving our own interests, and those of our children. If, however, we let go of this opportunity – we do so at our own peril.
As is written in our Holy Qur’an: “If they seek peace, then seek you peace.
And trust in God, for He is the One that hears and knows all things.”
Osman Siddique, the first Muslim to serve as a U.S. ambassador, was ambassador to the Republic of Fiji and to the Republic of Nauru, to the Kingdom of Tonga and to Tuvalu from 1999-2001. He now works as a businessman in the Washington DC area.