President Obama’s Cairo Speech:  Deeds, Not Words

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Jun 4, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Deeds, Not Words

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

The motto of the school I attended in the 1960s was: “Deeds, Not Words.” Our principal, a no-nonsense New Zealander, had the annoying habit of drilling this message into us at every opportunity. We bitterly resented him for it but with time and experience came to recognize that this was a tough but good tenet to live by.

I thought of this while listening to President Barack Hussein Obama’s address to Muslims from Cairo. It was a stirring speech, delivered with poise and flair, but that was expected from this wordsmith and orator. The pressing question is: Can Obama match his words with deeds?

The president anticipated this challenge: “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people,” he said. “These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead, and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

With that as context, let’s try to understand the specific issues the president identified in his speech. The issues are meaningful not only in and of themselves but also in the order in which they were presented.

One would have thought that at the top of the list would be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That the president chose, instead, to begin with the issue of “violent extremism in all its forms” is significant. By doing so he is challenging Muslims to reject and defeat the minority of extremists among us. He is also subtly suggesting that these extremists pose a greater danger to world peace, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere, than the Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Having framed his worldview thus, the president then takes up the “situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.” While reiterating America’s strong bonds with Israel and the fundamental right of that nation to live in peace and security, the president gave equal credence to Palestinian aspirations for a homeland. But how does an independent nation of Palestine come about? “Palestinians must abandon violence … Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build.”

These are tough words. The president is saying that it is easy to destroy, to be trapped in the past, to be driven solely by revenge. Why not learn from history and try the non-violent and the moral high ground approaches to achieve your goal? The president is really saying that for far too long, Palestinian leadership and the Arab world have used Palestinians as pawns for power and self-aggrandizement.

“At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. By using the word “Palestine,” Obama is saying that an independent nation for Palestinians will be a cornerstone of American foreign policy. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Notice the word “continued.” I found myself asking, “What about the existing illegal settlements? Do they stay?”

But the real issue here is not Palestinian but Israeli leadership. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to even utter the words “two-state solution” during his recent meeting with Obama in the White House. Can the Israeli leader, obsessed with imaginary threats from Iran, be forced to deal with the real issue of Palestinians who “endure daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation?”

The last U.S. president who spoke forcefully for Palestinian rights during office was Jimmy Carter. He was also a one-term president. Things have changed since Carter’s time, however. There is more awareness about the plight of the Palestinians in America now than there was three decades ago. Obama also has a more powerful mandate than Carter in bringing about lasting changes in the Middle East and more clout with Israel, with Hillary Clinton firmly by his side.

The irony is that all U.S. presidents become ardent supporters of Palestinians when they become ex-presidents. Jimmy Carter found out the hard way what happens when this trend is broken. And yet, if any president can be a catalyst for change in the Middle East, it is Barack Obama. The world in general, and the Muslim world in particular, will carefully observe how the president plays his hand in reining in Israel’s leaders to create a separate homeland for Palestinians. There is only one criterion here: Deeds, Not words.

The remaining issues the president dealt with were nuclear weapons (meant mostly for Iran), democracy, religious freedom (while “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance … among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s faith by the rejection of another’s”), women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity.

The president broke new ground by quoting the Quran three times:

“Be conscious of God and always speak the truth.” (33:70)

“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.” (5:32), and

“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.” (49:13)

I chuckled when Obama mispronounced “hijab” as “hajib.” A distraction was his mix of pronunciations: “Izlam” as well as “Islam” and “Mozlem” as well as “Muslim.”  A request from a citizen: Please, Mr. President, talk about “Islam” and “Muslim” when you need to, not “Izlam” and “Mozlem.”

In lauding the achievement of American Muslims, he singled out those who excelled in our sports arenas (Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jababr, Ahmad Rashad, and many others), won Nobel Prizes (reference to, among others, Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry),  built our tallest building (Fazlur Rahman Khan, Bangladeshi-American structural engineer, considered “the greatest structural engineer of the second half of the 20th century” for his constructions of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center), and lit the Olympic Torch (again, Muhammad Ali).

All in all, the president left most of his listeners with hope for a more peaceful world in the works.

We are defined by the tasks we undertake. Recall the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

It is not at all clear that Barack Hussein Obama can deliver on the promises he made in his speech from the Cairo University today. But by the challenges he has undertaken, it can surely be agreed that this U.S. president is willing to dare daunting tasks and for that alone, he deserves praise.


FULL TEXT of Obama’s Cairo speech

A great sell but are Muslims buying?, Max Boot
Amen Mr. President, Arsalan Iftikhar
Cairo Speech: Fair, Balanced And Not Backing Down,  M.J. Rosenberg
Changing the Discourse: First Step toward Changing the Policy?, Phyllis Bennis
Choosing Cairo was a mistake, Reza Aslan
The Grim Picture of Obama’s Middle East,  Noam Chomsky
Hamas Delivers Peace Letter to President Obama, Medea Benjamin
How far will Obama’s words of respect carry US-Muslim relations?, Howard LaFranchi
In Obama’s speech, a new approach to Middle East: candor, Peter Grier
“It Is Time For Us To Act On What Everyone Knows To Be True.”, Andrew Sullivan
J Street statement
Let Women Wear the Hijab: The Emptiness of Obama’s Cairo Speech, Peter Daou
Letter from America – Obama, Israel and Iran, Habib Siddiqui
My first take on the speech, Mark Lynch
Obama-Abbas: It starts with the settlements, Daoud Kuttab
Obama was up against Napoleon, Ali Eteraz
Obama’s Cairo speech, a defense of the Clinton-Bush policies, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
Obama’s “interference” in Israeli politics, Glenn Greenwald
Obama’s speech: good but not enough, Rami G. Khouri
Obama’s Speech Welcomed by Arabs Who Want Now to See Action,  Daniel Williams and Julianna Goldman
President Obama’s Cairo Speech:  Deeds, Not Words, Hasan Zillur Rahim
President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world: possibilites and pitfalls,  Dr. Javeed Akhter
Reaction in Pakistan, Issam Ahmed
Reaction in Israel, Irene Prusher
Reaction in Iran, Scott Peterson
Reaction in Indonesia
Reaction of U.S. Muslims
Speaking Frankly in Cairo, Reza Aslan
Varying Responses to Speech in Mideast Highlight Divisions, Michael Slackman
What Arabs and Muslims hope for in Obama speech, Ray Hanania
Why Obama’s Speech in Cairo Matters—and Why it Doesn’t, Kamran Pasha
World Reaction Mixed On Obama’s Cairo Speech,  Elizabeth Lee