President Obama and a New Beginning in Cairo

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By Amit Pandya – President Obama’s speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was favorably received. However, the initial gratification that the speech occasioned was accompanied by an inherent tension. The evident respect for religious sentiment and the historical achievements of Muslims, the concern about the suffering of Palestinians, and the regret for US adventures against Muslim countries will be subjected to the test of US actions in the future. That an important element of US opinion found the speech apologetic and self-abasing, an unnecessary diminution of US dignity and capacity, could weaken the President’s political capacity to effect changes in US policy and behavior.

Many Americans want Muslims to feel differently about US intentions in the varied Muslim societies of the world. Many Muslims want to see an indication that the United States will act differently, will pursue its interests with more regard for theirs. President Obama deserves credit for the extent to which he framed the encounter in political terms. While he acknowledged at the outset that these are “tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate”, he also at the outset framed them as “issues we must finally confront together.”

If political violence, Israel/Palestine, nuclear weapons and Iran, democracy and human rights, and economic development and opportunity are the issues that the US wants to address together with Muslim societies, this is how the US engages elsewhere: to identify common and divergent approaches, and the pursuit of common interests. Religion will not define how we see the world, and religious difference will not define how we approach each other, and will not distract us from the common business of meeting the human challenges of the 21st century. The vicious cycle of religious and political antagonism can therefore be broken.

It was therefore unfortunate to see a still excessive emphasis on religion. Though some of this was simply good manners, the religious terms, references to the scriptures, particularly and repeatedly the Koran, and to purportedly “religious” symbols such as hijab, and the ending of the speech on a religious note, were likely heard as a meretricious attempt to appeal to symbols. This seemed at odds with the attempt to bring the conversation to political and substantive, rather than religious and subjective, matters. The fact is that suspicion of US intentions is as widespread among secular Muslims as among religious.

The approach to Israel and Palestine will have been appreciated for its compassion for Palestinians’ suffering and its recognition of their national aspirations. However, it will not have escaped notice that renunciation of violence (accompanied by a condescending and selective civics lesson in the history of struggles for racial equality in the US and South Africa, and for national independence in India) was demanded only of the Palestinians and Hamas. Many will surely note that the American revolution, to which President Obama referred to establish the anti-imperialist credentials of the US, was not so bloodless. Others will cogently dispute his characterization of the South African struggle as peaceful.

Perhaps the gravest disquiet arises from the President’s treatment of the issue of democracy. Of course there were sighs of relief that the US has climbed off its high horse. However, having elected to make the speech in the most politically repressive of the major nations of the Muslim world, he was honor bound to make a clear and forceful statement. The Egyptian regime probably felt quite comfortable about fitting within his vague definition of “elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people” and with his accommodating “there is no straight line to realize this promise.”

The President may have faced an impossible task: the gulf between the political compulsions of any American leader and the aspirations of the ummah is quite formidable. No US President could have done better under current circumstances. Although much of the speech was conventional and unlikely to persuade on the current record, we may perhaps hope that the future practice of US foreign policy will persuade the Muslim world of the truth of the President’s appeal that we “share common principles.”

The Stimson Center’s research on current ideological trends and developments in the Muslim world suggests elements to bear in mind as President Obama’s administration seeks to realize this promise.

Communications with the Muslim world do well to remember that identity and ideology are highly variegated across the ummah. The Muslim world and the world of Islamic thought are not monolithic. Issues of identity, authority, and who speaks for Islam and Muslims are hotly contested.

Many, including President Obama’s well-wishers, will need persuasion that “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world is often a protest at the economic and social dimensions of the global order, not only a resistance to a culturally and religiously uncomprehending West. The global order is considered unjust in the economic and political arrangements between societies and nations and within autocratic Muslim societies, the latter most often sponsored and protected by the West. To what extent may this be expected to change?

Photo courtesy of Bakar 88:

Amit Pandya is a Senior Associate at the Stimson Center and Director of the project Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges.


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