Observations on President Obama’s Speech in Cairo

Ray Hanania

Posted Jun 6, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Observations on President Obama’s Speech in Cairo

By Ray Hanania

Much was made of President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday morning (CST) to the “Muslim World.” The speech was inspiring. I listened to Obama as his speech was broadcast by an Arab television station and also to the reaction of Arabs throughout the Middle East. I subscribe to the Arab World TV systems using a neat little cable package called “Talfazat” through NeuLion Media that requires no satellite dish and uses an Internet box that connects to my TV and Internet. (Check it out at Talfazat.com. It’s under $30 a month and you can watch Al-Jazeera English while trying to learn Arabic.)

I then read through his speech, all 6,000-plus words on 14 pages. It was very comprehensive and very inspiring.

Here are some of my observations:

I didn’t like that it was “framed” as being a “speech to the Muslim World.” What happened to the “Arab World?” Are the secular Arabs now all dead and we only have religious people in the Middle East?

Before Obama even got a chance to read his inspiring introduction, he was already being attacked by a strange bedfellows cabal of fanatics beginning with Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 who has managed to miss being arrested or killed in the past eight years because of the bungling of the former President George W. Bush.

And Bin Laden’s words received support in his criticism, denouncing Obama as a “traitor,” from some strident voices right here in the United States. Yes. Fox TV’s resident demagogue Sean Hannity. Radio Tyrant and dictator Rush Limbaugh. And former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Imagine. Hannity, Limbaugh, Cheney and Bin Laden all on the same side. I suspected as much when Cheney couldn’t seem to find Bin Laden, although he’s a regular on Arab World and European TV.

I also was shocked that Obama broke with tradition. This is the first time an American President visiting the Middle East did not make a stop in Israel, and, did not provide a copy of his major policy address ahead of time to the Israelis.

That’s significant, and may reflect a new reality stemming from Obama’s insistence that the United States apply the rule of law and principle in seeking to resolve the Middle East conflict. (Has anyone ever tried to do that?) It might also reflect Obama’s more subtle response to Israel’s extremist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insulted both Obama and the American people when he told us he will not stop expansion of the illegal settlements that are one of two major stumbling blocks to peace – the other being Israel’s insistence that they will not “share” Jerusalem with anyone.

But inside Obama’s words were far more positive things to focus on that made all of the pettiness from Netanyahu, Bin laden, Cheney and the rest seem insignificant.

It wasn’t until he got to his 2,750 word in his speech when he started to talk about how it was just as important to support the rights of the Palestinian people as it is to remain dedicated to Israel’s existence that the audience gave their first applause. It was loud and lengthy.

When Obama quoted the Qu’ran, the Islamic Holy book, or spoke in Arabic by greeting his audience with the religious welcome “as-salamu-alaikum, he didn’t get applause. It proves that the issue of Palestine is in fact the number one issue in the minds of the Arab World, contradicting Israel’s claims it is not and should be “Iran” – which isn’t in the Arab World at all.

In fact, the applause kept coming after several references to how he planned to insist on fairness for the Palestinians, who have been locked in a battle with Israel over the land of Palestine since Israel was created in 1948.

Obama sad that the bond between the United States and Israel is “unbreakable.” And then he said:

“On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

That is a major public statement about justice, fairness and principle that has been lacking in our American foreign policy and the missing link in the peace process.

Obama said the Palestinians must control their extremists and “abandon violence,” and then said:

“At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Wow. Another major policy statement that is based on principle, fairness, justice and the rule of law. All the things that are the foundation of American Democracy.

Clearly, Obama has his challenges. As much in the Arab and Muslim World as with an intransigent Israel that doesn’t want to dismantle the illegal settlements built on Christian and Muslim Palestinian lands.

But you can’t brush aside the power of his words. Obama is stating what many of his predecessors stated but with more substance and a clear understanding of the fundamentals of the Arab and Muslim World which cannot be ignored and needs to be addressed with respect, fairness and understanding.

And that’s why President Obama’s speech was so powerful and so important.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning American Palestinian columnist and morning talks how host. He can be reached at http://www.radiochicagoland.com.)