We are used to nice words and many, in the Muslim majority countries as well as Western Muslims, have ended up not trusting the United States when it comes to political discourse. They want actions and they are right. This is indeed what our world needs. Yet, President Obama, who is very eloquent and good at using symbols, has provided us with his speech in Cairo with something that is more than simple words. It has presented an attitude, a mindset, a vision.
In order to avoid shaping a binary vision of the world, Barack Obama referred to “America”, “Islam”, “the Muslims” and “the Muslim majority countries” : he never fell into the trap of speaking about “us” as different or opposed to “them” and he was quick to refer Islam as being an American reality, and to American Muslims as being an asset to his own society. Talking about his own life, he went from the personal to the universal stating that he knows by experience that Islam is a religion whose message is one of openness and tolerance. Both the wording and the substance of his speech were important and new : he managed to be humble, self-critical, open and demanding at the same time in a message targeting all of “us”, understood as “partners”.
The seven areas he highlighted are critical. One might disagree with President Obama’s reading and interpretation of what is happening in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Palestine (and the US role in these conflicts), but he has clearly not shied away from addressing these issues and has called all the parties to assume their share of responsibility by putting an end to violence and promoting respect and justice. He clearly acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians and their right to a viable and independent State. It is a first necessary step : the future will tell us if the new President is in a position to be sboth trong and consistent when dealing with the Israeli government. He left open some channels to dialogue with both the Palestinian authority (calling for unity without sidelining Hamas) and Iran. These were and remain critical issues and there will be no future unless they are addressed with consistency and courage. Expectations are immense and the Barack Obama has still to demonstrate his true practical commitment to justice and peace.
President Obama made a clear distinction between democratic principles and political models. The rule of law, free choice of the people, and the obligation of transparency are universal principals. Political models on the other hand, depend on historical and cultural factors. We hope the Obama administration will put this vision into practice by both promoting democratisation everywhere and scrupulously respecting the choice of the people : beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the undisputable principals of democracy, it was appropriate that such reminder to be uttered... in Egypt, to the Egyptian Government.
Barack Obama mentioned seven issues to be addressed. He started with more political issues and quite intelligently ended with the critical areas of “women” and “education”. This is where, he reminded his audience, we will all have to do much better. In these two areas he suggested practical solutions and presented interesting projects for the future. As it faces economic crisis, doubts, fears, and global threats, the world needs women to be more involved ; education must be promoted everywhere. These common challenges helped the American President, once again, to talk about an inclusive us, a “new we” so to speak, where we are partners sharing the same concerns, facing up to similar challenges, exposed to common enemies.
Mr Obama’s speech is not only directed to the Muslims around the world. The West and non-Muslims should also be listening. He spoke of acknowledging Islam’s historical contribution to science, development and thought. He wants his fellow American citizens to learn more about Islam, to be more humble and he expects that “liberals” not impose their views on practising Muslim, men and women. No one can impose a way of dressing or a way of thinking and we should learn from one another : the implicit reference to the French headscarf law was indeed quite explicit. He quoted religious texts coming from the three monotheistic faiths, each of them delivering a universal message. For true universalism is about educating one’s self, listening to and respecting the other. Two days before his speech in Cairo, Mr. Obama surprisingly stated that America was a great “Islamic country” : thus reminding Americans, as well as all Westerners, that Muslims are their fellow citizens and that Islam is a religion which is part of their common national narrative.
It was a powerful speech which was not only " a speech" : it embodied a vision that is both positive and demanding. Something has surely changed. Just as Mr. Obama moved from personal to universal principles, we are waiting for him to move from ideal to practical. He is young, he is new, he is intelligent and smart : does he have the capacity for courage as well ? Presidential courage is, after all, the issue as one wonders if it is possible for the United States to be simply consistent with its own values. Can one man possibly tackle and reform the extraordinary tension that drives the contemporary American mindset : on the one hand, promoting universal values and diversity while on the other nurturing a spirit that still shows some features of imperial attitude (intellectually, politically and economically). He will not be able to achieve it alone ; it may weel be his greatest challengers will come from the Indians and Chinese rather than the Muslims. Yet, it remains critical to acknowledge the positive aspects of a speech that proclaims "a new beginning" : it is imperative for Muslims to take Mr. Obama at his word and, instead of adopting either a passive attitude or the victim ’s mentality to contribute to a better world by being self–critical and critical, humble and ambitious, consistent and open. The best way to push Barack Obama to face up to his responsibility in America, in the Middle East or elsewhere is for Muslims to start by facing up to their own without blindly demonising America or the West or naively idealising a charismatic African-American US President.
P.S. : A personal note : President Barack Obama wanted us “to speak the truth”. It happens that once I spoke the truth as regard to the illegal American invasion of Iraq and the blind unilateral support of America towards Israel. I have been banned from the States and still remain. It may be one of these inconsistencies that make some of us still doubt the very meaning of political words. Once again a question of consistency.