Friday Talking Points [80] -- Parsing Obama's Cairo Speech

This is an interesting and refreshing subtext in Obama's entire speech -- he says things are "facts" and not opinions. Considering the lunacy that passes for "political debate" on American television screens -- where there are always two points of view, and every "fact" is subject to spin from one side or another -- it is a breath of fresh air.
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This will be a truncated column this week (which doesn't mean it isn't also a fairly long one). Because every so often I have to devote the entire week's roundup to examining a single speech. And President Barack Hussein Obama's speech to the Muslim world which he just gave in Cairo is important enough to examine without other distractions.

Which means no "most impressive" or "most disappointing" awards this week, sorry. No Democrat really stood out as being overly impressive or disappointing this week anyway, so it's not a great loss. If pressed, I would have given Obama the MIDOTW for his speech, and would have (if the rules did not forbid it) awarded the MDDOTW to myself, for extolling the virtues of the company that made the Hummer, in one of the most outrageously biased columns I've ever written. Bad Chris! Bad! Bad!!

Heh heh.

I spent much of the rest of the week looking at Obama's polls and spending two days discussing Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and her critics (including a look at what real racism sounds like, from Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was denied a judgeship himself for this very reason). Which I only mention in passing because while this column is a stickler for using correct titles (people in Washington love that sort of thing), I really wish a lot more of the media would do so in this case. Sotomayor, no matter what you think of her, is a federal appellate judge. This needs to be recognized and used by everyone, immediately, just as a sign of due respect we give to anyone in this position. It is "Judge Sotomayor" or "Judge Sonia Sotomayor." The next time you read a mainstream media article about her, notice whether her title is used the first time her name comes up. If it isn't, write the editor and complain. This is a sign of casual disrespect, and needs to stop.

OK, enough ranting. Let's move along to Obama's speech itself.

Volume 80 (6/5/09)

Although this is long, it merely hits the highlights of Obama's speech. I encourage everyone to take ten minutes and read the entire transcript for yourself. Obama, it should be pointed out, did not have to give this speech -- he chose to. He ran the risk of criticism here at home, and the benefits to him personally and politically in America were slight compared to the risk of actual political damage.

But he felt it was the right thing to do, and important for America's image in the rest of the world. So he went ahead and gave the speech anyway. This is why he was elected, as far as he's concerned. The possible benefits of raising America's image in the rest of the world were more important than any domestic political concerns. So whether you thought the speech was a flop or a barnburner, you've got to at least give Obama credit for the attempt.

Personally, I think this is one of those speeches which will long be remembered both in the Muslim world and here in America. Which is why I'm spending the whole column reviewing it.

President Obama's Cairo Speech

President Obama opened his speech with words of respect for Cairo, Islamic learning, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. He also used the phrase "assalaamu alaykum," showing (more than most Americans in foreign countries can manage, I might add) that learning a word or two of the local language ("please" and "thank-you" should be the first two) goes a long way towards showing that you are aware you are in a different culture than your own, and that you are trying to show that culture some respect.

Obama then brought up September 11th, and talked about how some Americans now view Islam, and (more generally) the relationship between Islam and the Western world. He ends this part with the theme of his speech ("a new beginning"):

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.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors.

He then quotes the Koran (and calls it "the Holy Koran" -- again, showing respect), and talks about Muslim influences on his own life. He then admits to a fact most people in the West are unaware of -- that in medieval times, the Muslim world was a beacon of intellectualism, while most of Europe was pretty barbaric in nature, and suffused with religious intolerance of new ideas. Centuries ago, things were completely different to where we stand today:

As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam -- at places like Al-Azhar University -- 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.

Obama then moves to speaking about Muslim Americans, and misguided perceptions both in America and in the Muslim world:

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. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

He then continues on the "Islam is a part of America" theme for a while, before getting to the "laundry list" part of the speech, which he opens:

The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet Al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

This is an interesting subtext in Obama's entire speech -- he says things are "facts" and not opinions, which is important both for the American audience and the Muslim world. The conspiracy theory that Jews were really behind 9/11 is widespread in the Muslim world, and (just as with Holocaust-denial) is a cancer on the public's opinion. But before feeling too superior, remember that Dick Cheney told us for years that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 (and something like 70 percent of America believed him), meaning that people will use this sort of thing politically when it behooves them in our world as well as theirs.

But it is refreshing indeed to hear any politician speak in such clear language: "This is a fact. It is not opinion." Considering the lunacy that passes for "political debate" (which the media stokes with a passion) on American television screens -- where there are always two points of view, and every "fact" is subject to spin from one side or another -- it is a breath of fresh air to hear someone stand up to this sort of nonsense and just lay it on the table: "This is a fact to be dealt with."

And, once again, showing respect, Obama makes a Muslim argument that will resonate with the audience:

Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths -- more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace.

Just as leaders of the American pro-life movement are the most important ones to hear from in the denunciation of murdering doctors (as most of them did), Islamist militants need to be countered by strong Muslim leaders who denounce them for being un-Islamic.

Obama continues, talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States' desire to remove our troops from both countries eventually. Once again, this counters the impression of America as some sort of neo-colonialist power, which is prevalent in that part of the world. Changing these impressions is the main thing Obama wants to accomplish. Which he follows up with:

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

These are symbolic gestures, and the scope of them is often not appreciated or understood fully in America. The image we project to the world is very important. Obama knows this. You can fault him for how he is going about closing Guantanamo or ending torture, but you have to give him credit for understanding what potent symbols they have become to the rest of the world.

He then pivots to a tough part of the speech for the audience to hear -- America's bond with Israel.

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

He talks a bit about the suffering of both the Jewish people and the Palestinians, and the two-state solution. He rebukes both sides, albeit very carefully.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Those last two sentences are among the most powerful in the entire speech. He then has some milder words of rebuke (notice the modifier "continued" in there) for the Israelis:

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

This leaves open the question of what to do about the settlements that currently exist, but it is noteworthy that Obama pushed back against Israel even to this degree, since the Muslim world hasn't seen the United States as a neutral broker in the dispute in a long, long time. So even symbolic gestures carry a lot of weight on the subject.

Obama then touches upon a very important point. Middle Eastern countries are notorious for saying what America wants to hear in English, and then going home and saying something completely different to their people. This game of doubletalk means they can appear to be one thing to the American audience, while reassuring their people back home "here's what we really feel." This is a major obstacle to progress, and Obama wades right into it:

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.

That "(peace be upon them)" is critically important, which most American media just completely missed. In Islam, this phrase (with: "...upon him") is supposed to be uttered every single time you mention Mohammed. It is a mark of respect, like saying "Lord Jesus." And the fact that Obama followed their convention will go a long way in the hearts-and-minds department. But Obama was smart, and lumped together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in this honor, showing that he respects all religions, not just one. This was a brilliant job of phrasing, and whoever wrote this paragraph deserves a raise.

He then tackles Iran and the nuclear problem. Now, this gets sticky for two reasons. The first is that Iran is fully allowed (even though you don't hear this often in American media) -- and even entitled -- to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. They are a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is what gives them this right.

But Muslims everywhere will immediately point out that Israel has never signed the NPT. We play a fictional diplomatic game over the issue, where everyone is supposed to pretend that the sky isn't blue, and that Israel doesn't have nuclear weapons because they've never actually admitted having them. Which is the second sticky issue.

But before he gets to it, he makes another astonishing admission of truth (one that most Americans are simply not aware of, having never been taught such things in school) -- one of the biggest problems America has with Iran is the fact that we (via the CIA) overthrew their democratically-elected government not so long ago. You don't hear presidents talking about this particular piece of our own history very often, which is why it was astonishing to hear Obama say so (in bold "this is a fact" language).

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

Obama will likely be hit from the right domestically over making such an admission -- with the tired old smear that he's one of those "blame America first" liberal types. But the converse of this is almost never brought up -- that the people making these complaints are just as robotic as how they're trying to paint their opponents, except that they are "never blame America for anything, even if America was in the wrong" types. Which, as I said, is why Obama's statement is so astonishing. We overthrew a democratically-elected government less than 60 years ago. We installed a despot who was friendly to us. The people of Iran quite rightfully resented this, and they still do. If we don't admit this, we are not seen by the Muslim world as being fully honest. Because it is not a matter of opinion, it is a fact. But I have never before heard a president actually admit this fact, and certainly not in front of a Muslim audience.

But back to Iran and the nuclear issue:

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

This conveniently ignores another historic fact -- that we aided and abetting Israel getting nuclear weapons, and that America did indeed "pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons," which is part of the problem today. By wrapping it in a "let's all get rid of nukes" package, Obama sidesteps talking about Israel's nukes. A big glaring omission, I have to say.

Obama then speaks of democracy, using the line: "So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Which must be a refreshing thing for Muslims to hear from an American president. Obama talks up the benefits of democracy for a while, then moves on to his next point, religious tolerance.

Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

"Zakat" is the Third Pillar of Islam, and can be roughly compared to the Christian concept both of alms-giving and of "tithing." Laws passed after 9/11 have restricted charity money flowing from American Muslims, because some of that "charity" money doesn't always wind up funding such charitable purposes -- some false charities funnel money to terrorist groups. Which is why the laws were beefed up. But Obama is saying "maybe the laws are a bit too strict, let's see if we can improve them." This is an issue that isn't even on America's radar, but one with huge implications to Muslims, making it both a symbolic issue and a substantial one.

Obama then speaks briefly about women's' rights, saying "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." He's not exactly using a sledgehammer to drive the point home, and is rather weak on standing up for women in Muslim countries (for instance) who do not want to cover their heads. But this is a very touchy issue, so you get the sense Obama is walking on eggshells here a bit. His last point is about development in the Muslim world, which he supports, and then he begins wrapping up his whole speech:

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek -- a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

. . .

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples -- a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us, "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground

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