Today, President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim World at a speech at Cairo University in Egypt, [also see my lead-up post yesterday]. In the speech, he pledged to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” imploring America and the Islamic world to drop their suspicions of one another and forge new alliances to confront violent extremism and heal religious divides,” reported the NY Times. He asserted,
I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon 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…There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Quran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.
The U.S. President went on to relate this new resolve to his own upbringing, noting that although he is a Christian, his father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. He added, “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith…So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”
The speech Thursday was not all rhetoric. Obama went on to detail his specific positions on Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the topic of Pakistan, he emphasized, “We also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced.” On Israel and Palestine, the President noted the U.S. bond with Israel was “unbreakable,” but also noted, “It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” According to the NY Times, “He offered no major initiatives on the Middle East peace process although he put Israelis and Palestinians on notice that he intends to deal directly with what he sees as intransigence on key issues, evoking the concerns of both parties but asking both to shift ground significantly.”
Obama’s address today was not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but he never claimed it would be. In fact, in an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams that aired yesterday, the President stated,
I also don’t want to, you know, load up too many expectations on this speech. After all, one speech is not going to transform very real policy differences and some very difficult issues surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between Islam and the west…And the question then is how do we now go forward with a honest, serious relationship based on mutual respect and mutual interest?
The speech was powerful in its messaging. Obama demonstrated a true understanding of the ideological divide that currently exists between the U.S. and Islam, or the “Islamic World,” and exhibited a resolve to address this problem and change perceptions on either side. This marks a dramatic paradigm shift from the Bush adminstration era, which often polarized the conflict into an “us” versus “them” issue that only further exacerbated this divide. Obama attempted to bridge this gap throughout his speech, quoting the Quran not once, but three times and even noted that the first American Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, “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.” It was, as the NY Times noted, “the riskiest speech of his young presidency.”
The question that now remains is, will Obama carry out the foreign policy objectives he outlined in Cairo? Will they turn into concrete initiatives? Will his order to close Guantanamo Bay actually occur? And, in terms of Pakistan, [since that is the focus of this blog], will the $1.5 billion in aid finally move past Capitol Hill in Washington to our country? While all of these questions are up for debate, I will say that I was inspired by Obama’s speech. His presidency represents an attempt to rebrand America in order to better its perceptions throughout the world, not just among Muslims.
He also is redefining what it means to be an American – that a Muslim-American is just as American as anyone else. As he noted, “So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” That point is important because it exemplifies a fundamental shift in the U.S. leadership that was not evident in the past eight years. What were your thoughts on the address?
If you missed the speech, you can watch the video below, or read the full transcript here.