President Obama reaches out to the Islamic world in a landmark speech
By Robert Fisk, The Independent
Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor. Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.
Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at Cairo University â€œre-imagine the worldâ€ and heal the wounds of centuries between Muslims and Christians? Will it resolve the Arab-Israeli tragedy after more than 60 years? If words could do the job, perhaps…
It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday, as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish for and we were all his audience. He praised Islam. He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved Christianity. And he admired America. Did we know that there were seven million Muslims in America, that there were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States and that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?
But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to avoid hurting feelings in Israel. To deny the facts of the Jewish Holocaust was â€œbaseless, ignorant and hatefulâ€, he said, a remark obviously aimed at Iran. And Israel deserved security and â€œPalestinians must abandon violence…â€
The United States demanded a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis there had to be a total end to their colonisation in the West Bank. â€œThe United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.â€
The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. â€œThe situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,â€ Obama said and the US would not turn its back on the â€œlegitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their ownâ€. Israel had to take â€œconcrete stepsâ€ to give the Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to exist. Wow. Not for a generation has Israel had to take this kind of criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?
Alas, he did. Indeed, at times, the Obama address sounded like the Bush General Repair Company, visiting the Muslim world to sweep up mountains of broken chandeliers and shredded flesh. The President of the United States and this was awesome admitted his countryâ€™s failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its creation of Guantanamo which, Obama reminded us all again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama…
We got to Iran. One state trying to acquire nuclear weapons would lead to a â€œdangerous pathâ€ for all of us, especially in the Middle East. We must prevent a nuclear arms race. But Iran as a nation must be treated with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us that the US had connived to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadeq government of Iran in the Fifties. It was â€œhard to overcome decades of distrust.â€
There was more; democracy, womenâ€™s rights, the economy, a few good quotes from the Koran (â€œWhoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankindâ€.) Governments must respect â€œall their peopleâ€ and their minorities. He mentioned the Christian Copts of Egypt; even the Christian Maronites of Lebanon got a look in.
And when Obama said that some governments, â€œonce in power, are ruthless in suppressing the rights of othersâ€, there was a roar of applause from the supposedly obedient audience. No wonder the Egyptian government wanted to select which bits of Obamaâ€™s speech would be suitable for the Egyptian people. They were clearly very, very unhappy with the police-state regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Obama did not once mention Mubarakâ€™s name.
Over and again, one kept saying to oneself: Obama hasnâ€™t mentioned Iraq and then he did (â€œa war of choice… our combat brigades will be leavingâ€). But he hasnâ€™t mentioned Afghanistan and then he did (â€œwe do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan… we will gladly bring every one of our troops homeâ€). When he started talking about the â€œcoalition of 46 countriesâ€ in Afghanistan a very dodgy statistic he began to sound like his predecessor. And here, of course, we encountered an inevitable problem. As the Palestinian intellectual Marwan Bishara pointed out yesterday, it is easy to be â€œdazzledâ€ by presidents. This was a dazzling performance. But if one searched the text, there were things missing.
There was no mention during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran of Israelâ€™s estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence for â€œshooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a busâ€. But there was no mention of Israelâ€™s violence in Gaza, just of the â€œcontinuing humanitarian crisis in Gazaâ€. Nor was there a mention of Israelâ€™s bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this. The Holocaust loomed out of his speech and he reminded us that he was going to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the next day.
For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam the â€œlight of learningâ€ in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism, on â€œcycles of suspicion and discordâ€ even if America and Islam shared â€œcommon principlesâ€ which turned out to be â€œjustice, progress and the dignity of all human beingsâ€.
There was one merciful omission: a speech of nearly 6,000 words did not include the lethal word â€œterrorâ€. â€œTerrorâ€ or â€œterrorismâ€ have become punctuation marks for every Israeli government and became part of the obscene grammar of the Bush era.
An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One could only remember Churchillâ€™s observations: â€œWords are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare.â€