President Barack Obama to the Muslims. Just a speech?
by Tariq Ramadan
We are used to nice words and many, in the Muslim majority countries as well as Western Muslims, have ended up not trusting the United States when it comes to political discourse. They want actions and they are right. This is indeed what our world needs. Yet, President Obama, who is very eloquent and good at using symbols, has provided us with his speech in Cairo with something that is more than simple words. It is altogether an attitude, a mindset, a vision.
In order to avoid shaping a binary vision of the world, Barack Obama referred to “America”, “Islam”, “the Muslims” and “the Muslim majority countries”: he never fell into the trap of speaking about “us” as different or opposed to “them” and he was quick to refer Islam as being an American reality, and to the American Muslims as being an asset to his own society. Talking about his own life, he went from personal to universal stating that he knows by experience that Islam is a religion whose message is about openness and tolerance. Both the wording and the substance of his speech were important and new: he managed to be humble, self-critical, open and demanding at the same time in a message targeting all of “us”, understood as “partners”.
The seven areas he highlighted are critical. One might disagree with President Obama’s reading and interpretation of what is happening in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Palestine (and the US role in these conflicts), but he has clearly avoided shying away from addressing these issues and has called all the parties to take their share of responsibility by putting an end to violence and promoting respect and justice. He clearly acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians and their rights to get a viable and independent State. It is a first necessary step: the future will tell us if the new President has the means to be strong and consistent when dealing with the Israeli government. He left open some channels as to the dialogue with both the Palestinian authority (calling for unity without sidelining Hamas) and Iran. These were and remain critical issues and there will be no future without addressing them with consistency and courage. Expectations are immense and Barack Obama has still to show his true practical commitment to justice and peace.
President Obama made an important distinction between democratic principles and political models. Rule of law, free choice of the people, duty of transparency are universal principals while the political models are depending on historical and cultural factors to be taken into account. We hope the Obama administration would put this vision into practice by both promoting democratisation everywhere and scrupulously respecting the choice of the people: it would be good to start with Iraq and Afghanistan. As to the undisputable principals of democracy, this is a good reminder to be uttered… in Egypt, to the Egyptian Government, where the President was delivering his speech.
Barack Obama mentioned seven issues to be addressed. He started by the more political issues and quite intelligently ended with the critical areas of “women” and “education”. This is where, he recalled, we all have to do much better. In these two areas he came with practical solutions and presented future interesting projects. Facing economic crisis, doubts, fears, and global threats, the world needs women to be more involved and education to be promoted everywhere. These commons challenges helped the President, once again, to talk about an inclusive us, a “new we” so to say, where we are partners sharing the same concerns, facing up to te similar challenges, exposed to common enemies.
This speech is not only directed to the Muslims around the world. The West and non Muslims should listen. Barack Obama spoke about acknowledging the historical Islamic contribution to sciences, development and thought. He wants his fellow American citizens to learn more about Islam, to be more humble and he expects from all the “liberals” not to impose their views on practising Muslims, men and women. No one can impose a way of dressing or a way of thinking and we should learn from one another: the implicit reference to the French controversy around the headscarf was indeed quite explicit. He quoted religious texts that were coming from the three monotheistic faiths, everyone of them delivering a universal message. As if true universalism is about educating one’s self, listening to and respecting the other. Two days before his speech in Cairo, Obama surprisingly stated that America was a great “Islamic country”: it was a way for him to remind the Americans, as well as all the Westerners, that the Muslims are their fellow citizens and Islam is a religion which is part of their common national narrative.
A powerful speech which was not only ” a speech”: it embodies a vision both positive and demanding. Something has surely changed. As Barack went from personal to universal principles, we are waiting for him to go from ideal to practical. He is young, he is new, he is intelligent and smart: has he the means of being courageous? For it is all about presidential courage as one wonders if it is possible for the United States to be simply consistent with its own values. Could one man tackle and reform this extraordinary tension that inhabits the contemporary American mindset : on the one hand, promoting universal values and diversity while on the other nurturing a spirit that still has some features of imperial attitude (intellectually, politically and economically). He will not be able to achieve it alone and maybe his greatest challengers so far are more Indian and Chinese than Muslims. Yet, it remains critical to acknowledge the positive sides of a speech announcing “a new beginning”: it is imperative for the Muslims to take Obama at his word and, instead of adopting either a passive attitude or a victim mentality to contribute to a better world by being self–critical and critical, humble and ambitious, consistent and open. The best way to push Barack Obama to face up to his responsibility in America, in the Middle East or elsewhere is for Muslims to start facing up to their own without blindly demonising America or the West or naively idealising a charismatic African-American US President.
P.S.: A personal note : President Barack Obama wanted us “to speak the truth”. It happens that once I spoke the truth as regard to the illegal American invasion of Iraq and the blind unilateral support of America towards Israel. I have been banned from the States and still remain. It may be one of these inconsistencies that make some of us still doubt the very meaning of political words. Once again a question of consistency.