Obama’s Cairo speech transcends location and proves timeless
by Javeed Akhter
Millions, if not hundreds of millions of Muslims, watched President Obama’s Cairo speech live Thursday morning. The expectations had reached such a crescendo that there was fear that the speech would not reach the climax it promised. Even the skeptics, and I confess I was one of them, came away impressed. Those of us who argued that the choice of Egypt, a totalitarian state run by a dictator, was the wrong place to give the speech, now feel that the speech transcended the location.
Obama came across as a reflective figure that projected humility and intelligence, had an excellent grasp of history, understood what the Quran teaches and the positions that the overwhelming majority of Muslims adhere to. He talked about his family and past, his civil rights background and his African American heritage; it was as if he was finally free to speak about the things that were important to him but because of political compulsions had not.
He was able to tap into the goodwill Muslims have toward ordinary Americans by saying he recognizes Islam and Muslims are stereotyped. The hostility in the Muslim world is toward US policy initiatives, but not toward US values; higher education, freedom of religion and lack of graft in daily life are just a few examples of what is admired in the US.
Differences in culture give societies a different feel. In Muslim societies there is less gender interaction, more modesty in attire and rejection of premarital sex and alcohol. There is a greater display of respect of elders, a lesser display of public affection and a greater display of public religiosity.
Obama quoted the Quranic verse about diversity “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” and mentioned the tolerance in Islam. “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance” he said. “We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.”
President Obama talked about freedom of speech. There is an old tradition among Muslims, going back to the early Caliphs, of ordinary folks criticizing authority. This tradition is suppressed in many of the Middle Eastern countries with two of the worst offenders being Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But freedom to speak, it is widely believed, does not mean freedom to insult and disrespect.
Democratic governance, another issue he touched upon, has been embraced by Muslim people whenever they had a chance to do so. Examples include Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey and from time to time Pakistan. Algeria would have been democratic if the elections were not subverted by the military and Iran paradoxically is both a theocracy and a vibrant democracy as the recent pre election debates seem to indicate.
President Obama recognized that that Islam does not preach violence and that Muslims with the exception of as he called it “a potent minority” abhor it. The struggle of Muslim people is for rights within their own lands. He gave encouragement to the many peace activists in the Muslim world whose voices have been drowned out by the violent extremists when he drew an analogy to the civil rights movement in the US and underscored its success came through peaceful and not violent resistance; a clear reference at the Palestinian tactics.
On women’s rights Muslims would nuance things differently on some issues. In response to an open ended question in a recent Gallup poll, Muslim women did not see themselves as oppressed. On the contrary these women reported they felt good about the Muslim societies they live in because they perceived these to be more moral and spiritual than the West. The common misperception in Muslim nations of the Western societies as promiscuous and immoral may have been a factor in this response. There is bias on both sides. The Hijab, commonly regarded as a symbol of oppression in the West, was not mentioned.
In spite of differences between cultures, all societies, Obama pointed out, pine for honest leaders, transparency, accountability in governance, law and order and a chance for its citizens to live their lives in peace and prosperity. He quoted all three scriptures to make his point. What is needed is a multifaceted understanding of cultures and faiths and honest and peaceful effort help these societies change themselves and not bring a sledge hammer to them.
President Obama is fond of saying it is time to put his “shoulder to the wheel” and inch it forward. In this speech, the third in his outreach to the Muslim world, he clearly accomplished this goal. Now comes the difficult part; matching action to the rhetoric.
Javeed Akhter, a physician, is founding member of a Chicago based Muslim American think tank “The International Strategy and Policy Institute” and author of the book “The Seven Phases of Prophet Muhammad’s Life.”