Reading between the lines in Cairo

By Michelle Chen Jun 05, 2009

President Obama’s speech in Cairo aspired to recast America’s relations with the “Muslim world.” The response of Muslim observers in the so-called Western world ranged from cautious hope to detached cynicism. But across the board, people noted Obama’s careful choice of words when speaking over historically entrenched political borders: To some in the American Muslim community, Obama’s cultural references and phrasing marked a refreshing departure from the cowboy metaphors that have characterized White House posturing in recent years. Rafia Zakaria at AltMuslim reflected on both the power and limitations of language:

While there is legitimacy to the cries of skeptics who have emphasized repeatedly the necessity of following beautiful words with equally resplendent policy changes; a moment must be reserved to recognize the value of the words themselves… The speech was given from Cairo and was peppered thoroughly with references to the Quran and gave prominent place to the interspersion of American history with Muslim history. Unlike the condescension of speaking from above, to highlighting difference; the tone, quality and venue of the speech were all designed to convey the message that the United States wants an engagement with the Muslim world that is based on mutuality rather than arrogance.

At the Guardian, Reza Aslan remarked that while the President merely rehashed old talking points on Palestine, “it was the frankness with which Obama spoke of the situation, using terms that no American president would dream of using, that caught one’s attention.” Still, on human rights, ironies peeked through the dignified veneer:

Unfortunately, Obama made no mention of the consequences for Israel’s continued defiance of international law. Nor did he have much to offer the barest of platitudes for the one issue that poll after poll in the Muslim world indicates is the biggest concern of Muslims: the lack of political rights. Obama may have felt hamstrung by the presence of his host, Hosni Mubarak, one of the worst despots in the region, a man who runs a police state in which bloggers, journalists, and democracy activists, not to mention freely elected members of parliament, are routinely rounded up and jailed on trumped up charges. Nevertheless, the few words he did have on the topic of democracy received the loudest and most sustained applause, an indication that this is a topic that Obama cannot afford to ignore.

Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah read Obama’s speech as a continuance of geopolitics that paint Muslim societies into a corner:

Though he pledged to "speak the truth as best I can", there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between "America and Islam" – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar. Labelling America’s "other" as a nebulous and all-encompassing "Islam" (even while professing rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions in many of those countries. This opposition – and the resistance it generates – has now become for supporters of those interventions, synonymous with "Islam".

Eboo Patel, Obama adviser and founder of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, heard echoes of King in Obama’s focus on "common principles" and "service”:

Obama came to Cairo to bridge one of the great divides of our age – between the United States and the Muslim world. And he drew from the same vision, grace and courage that King did. …. And just as King spoke of the importance of service – "Everybody can be great because anybody can serve" – so did Obama speak of service as a way to bring people together: "Indeed, faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s Interfaith dialogue and Turkey’s leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into Interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action – whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster."

But was that the main point? This reading seems to reflect not King’s most sophisticated ideas, but the muted vision crystallized in the political establishment—a softening of a radical philosophy that took on a sharper edge as the country’s social justice movements matured. Today, the idea of “bringing people together” may inspire the same frustration that many felt toward nonviolent tactics in the 1960s (King included): the ideal of reconciliation weighted against an increasingly desperate struggle. Does that translate into a lesson for America’s evolving policy toward Muslim countries? In interpreting their histories, many Muslims who straddle these two worlds read justice alongside peace. Image: Washington Post