Obama appeals for mutual understanding and respect

Some commentators have criticized President Obama’s speech in Cairo because it couldn’t be boiled down to any one, organizing thesis. For example, the L.A. Times quotes Professor Avraham Ben-Zvi, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the University of Haifa:

The speech was disappointing, addressing too many issues. When such high expectations are built up, one expects a founding declaration, a central thesis. This was more of a mixed salad. It touched many issues — although elegantly, but lacked a central thesis. […] in the end, it contained many trees but very little forest.

It seems to me, there’s an organizing principle that applies to almost every major address Obama delivers. The principle is the promotion of mutual understanding and respect.

Obama began:

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace. […] I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

At the outset, Obama indicated his awareness of, and empathy for, the experience of Muslims around the world:

The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Obama’s reference to modernity shows admirable sensitivity. Those of you who do not have roots in a conservative religion cannot possibly understand how threatening modernity is to many people. Reliance on God supplanted by reliance on science and technology. The separation of church and state as a Trojan horse for the promotion of secular humanism in public schools. Moral relativism making it impossible to assert any clear distinction between right and wrong. Promiscuity and homosexual rights following in the wake of moral relativism, and new technology bringing pornography into mainstream society. Court decisions leading to a Holocaust of aborted babies, with tax revenues used to pay for those abortions (effectively making every taxpayer complicit in them, at least here in Canada).

I don’t necessarily sympathize with that perspective on the world. But the point is, Obama’s passing reference to “the sweeping change brought by modernity” shows an awareness of the core sensitivity of religious conservatives everywhere — certainly including many Muslims.

Next, Obama acknowledges the West’s indebtedness to the historic learning of Muslim civilization:

It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.

And then, Obama pivots. In effect, he says, I’ve signaled a willingness to look at events from your perspective; now, I appeal to you, consider events from my perspective :

I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.

According to American neoconservatives, our enemies have nothing in common with us, and they hate us for our freedoms. Obama puts a different spin on things:

Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.

Only then, having set a context of mutual understanding and respect, does Obama proceed to speak of American interests:

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security. Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject:  the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.

Note how he addresses the topic:  “we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject.” Obama continually appeals over the head of terrorists to the people, invoking the fundamental teachings of Islam:

None of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths — more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that 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. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace.

Obama reiterated his commitment to getting American troops out of Iraq within an agreed timeframe:

Today, America has a dual responsibility:  to help Iraq forge a better future — and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.

Also to end the American torture regime:

The fear and anger that [9/11] provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

Obama next turned his attention to “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.” Here he did not mince words in expressing the U.S.A.’s ongoing support for the state of Israel:

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

[…] Six million Jews were killed [by the Third Reich] — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction —

Hello, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!

… or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

Note, again, how Obama appeals to the peace that the people deserve. That reference becomes another pivot point, as Obama turns his attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees:

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.

Next comes the most powerful and important part of the entire speech. First, Obama unequivocally demands, “Palestinians must abandon violence.” Then he boldly compares circumstances in Palestine to the historical experience of black slaves in America:

Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth:  that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Then, once again, Obama demonstrates his awareness that Palestinians, too, have legitimate grievances. He demanded an end to Palestinian violence; likewise, he demands an end to Israel’s illegal and provocative settlements in the West Bank:

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.

Obama addresses a number of other sore points (including the U.S.A.’s commitment to women’s rights). But in the end, he returns to his favourite theme, an appeal for mutual understanding and respect:

Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort — that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There is so much fear, so much mistrust. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world.

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

Obama’s words may fail to bear fruit because they have fallen on sterile soil. And I don’t refer only to Muslims — some pro-Israel Americans are repudiating the speech. Be that as it may, the speech was a masterpiece.

President Obama assumed a prophetic role:  he transcended mere politics and set out to promote the “brotherhood of man,” as we once called it. And Obama is right — there is no hope for peace in the Middle East until people get in touch with their core, our common humanity.

It was only a speech, as Obama himself acknowledged:  but what a speech!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jack
    Jun 06, 2009 @ 16:32:09

    Obama over reaches in his speech. The comparison between slavery and Palestinians is inaccurate and ridiculous. The comments about settlements is far too broad and not nearly specific enough.

    It would be easy to spend hours picking apart the many problems with it, but I’ll address just a few.

    Let me start by saying that I don’t think that Israel is without blame, but neither is it the sole cause. So let’s spend a moment looking at some significant issues.

    The Palestinians are not represented by a unified gov’t. Hamas effectively kicked Fatah out of Gaza. Mind you that it was a civil war in which they flung Fatah members off the roofs of buildings and shot others in the kneecap.

    Remember Israel disengaged from Gaza and Hamas turned it into a launching pad for missiles that are shot into Israel. Shot at cities that are not under dispute, only by Hamas and others who do not recognize Israel.

    So how do you negotiate peace when you do not have one group to work with.

    But let’s set that aside for a moment and look at something. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas the following:

    * 97% of the West Bank
    * Right of Return for Palestinian refugees
    * East Jerusalem

    It was turned down because the Palestinians refuse to accept a Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

    How do you bridge these gaps? This is not something that can be done over night. All this speech has done has created more Arab intransigence and a greater refusal to cooperate.

    Obama has created a bigger problem, he needs to step back and reconsider the approach. These gaps are not overcome with fancy talk.


  2. Stephen
    Jun 06, 2009 @ 18:32:59

    Thanks for providing a Jewish perspective, Jack.

    The comparison between slavery and Palestinians is inaccurate and ridiculous.

    Except that the goal of the comparison was to encourage the Palestinians to use non-violent means to escape their circumstances. In effect, he says to Palestinians, “You feel aggrieved and you respond violently. I’m a black man: I understand what it’s like to be an oppressed people. But history teaches that violence begets only more violence. If you want to escape oppression, take the moral (non-violent) high road.”

    Surely you support Obama on that point!

    Which leads to a broader observation. Obama is trying to shift people away from the old, tired rhetoric. He’s trying to force people to think their way down new paths, instead of yielding to the old mental tics, reflexively. He’s not overreaching — I think it’s sad that you put that spin on the speech — he’s trying to shake people out of their old mental paradigms.

    Because, after all, so long as people are stuck in the same old mental ruts, the situation is not going to change.

    Let me start by saying that I don’t think that Israel is without blame, but neither is it the sole cause.

    Did Obama say that Israel is 100% to blame? Didn’t he challenge the Muslim world repeatedly in this speech? —

    • “We reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.”

    • “I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations […]. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.”

    • “Six million Jews were killed [by the Third Reich] […]. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong.”

    • “Palestinians must abandon violence. […] It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.”

    • You mention Hamas. Obama mentioned them, too:

    “The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

    After those tough words directed at Palestinians and their supporters elsewhere in the Muslim world, your President makes one demand of Israel:

    • “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.”

    As I understand it, that has been American policy for a long time; but successive Presidents have refused to insist on compliance by Israel. Obama is breaking new ground here only insofar as he is holding Israel to account for thumbing its nose at America’s position.

    I appreciate your point, “Remember Israel disengaged from Gaza and Hamas turned it into a launching pad for missiles that are shot into Israel.” I concede, there are no guarantees that Israel would fare any better after pulling out of the West Bank.

    But it was Ariel Sharon who pulled Israel out of Gaza. Maybe Sharon wasn’t playing for short-term results; maybe he was trying to change the entrenched dynamic in order to reduce hostilities in the long term.

    Because one thing is certain: we can’t keep trying the same old things, and thinking the same reflexive thoughts, while expecting different results. Kudos to Obama for trying to rattle cages on both sides of this interminable conflict.


    • Jack
      Jun 06, 2009 @ 22:17:36

      I think that there is merit to trying new things, but there are steps that need to be taken to get to that point.

      I supported the disengagement because I saw that as being a smart move. I thought that it would offer more benefits than risk. I thought that it would be seen as a good faith gesture.

      I thought that if Israel was attacked from Gaza the world would support its right to defend itself. That is not what happened. Years of attacks finally provoked a response and what did the world say? Nothing.

      Africa burns and the world doesn’t care. Sri Lanka carries out a bloody war against terror and the world says nothing.

      Russia goes after Chechnya with a vengeance and nothing is said.

      The champions of human rights in Saudi Arabia. Those stalwart heroes of justice who let children burn in a school fire because they weren’t dressed appropriately, who cut off a “criminals” head, sewed it back on to his body and left it for display have the audacity to lecture about peace and justice. The same country that has to go to court so that an eight year old can divorce her husband speaks out like some authority about how Israel is wrong.

      Understand that my anger is not directed at you, but I won’t deny it.

      Obama skipped crucial building steps. What is a settlement? We haven’t any definition here of what it is. We don’t say if it is a mobile home or a town of 30,000.

      We don’t say where it is or at what point things change. If a “settlement” is 40 years old is it still considered a settlement.

      The UN resolutions that are bandied about don’t define this clearly either.

      So again I come back to the problem of bridging the gaps. As you are aware language and terminology can be interpreted in many different ways. Unless we come to an agreement about things like what is a settlement we are going to continue to butt heads.

      And part and parcel of why I get angry is that I believe this fuels the fire. I believe that it gives the terrorists and radical elements more rope to play with which will lead to death.

      My apologies for the long comment, but it is hard to try and keep these things short. My family and my friends are affected by this. It is hard not to take this very personally.


  3. Stephen
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 09:12:14


    Once in a while, I find myself arguing policy with someone who is more personally affected by the results of that policy than I am. I’m aware that it puts me in a tenuous position: arguing in the abstract, while someone else has something personally significant at stake.

    Let me say, at least, that I understand your anger. I’m sure I would be just as angry if I were in your place.

    The problem is, the Palestinians are personally affected by events, too. And they’re just as angry as you are.

    My sympathies lie with Israel. I have no doubt that Israel is more sinned against than sinning.

    But your anger arises from one set of facts, and a particular interpretation of those facts. The Palestinians are angry because they focus on a different set of facts; or perhaps they interpret some of the same events differently than Jews do.

    Israel demolishes Gaza because the Palestinians were firing rockets from Gaza. Then the Palestinians carry out suicide bombings or some such because they’re so angry that Israel demolished Gaza.

    Israel suffered rocket attacks, so they retaliate. Palestinian homes were destroyed, so they retaliate. Tit for tat in an endless cycle of violence.

    The problem then becomes, how do we break out of that vicious circle?

    Obama is appealing over the heads of the political leaders, and over the heads of the “violent extremists” (the label he used in this speech). He’s appealing directly to Muslim people — in particular Muslim youth. “You, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world”.

    But for that appeal to be heard, he has to show some appreciation, or at least an awareness, of the Palestinian perspective on events. That includes Palestinian resentment of the West Bank settlements — which also happen to be contrary to American policy.

    I concede your point that the land and the houses in question would have to be delineated by someone: These houses must come down, but those houses can stay. But I think that argument just evades the issue. The President’s point is, Israel continues to add new houses in the disputed area of the West Bank — and the President wants it to stop. No “natural growth” — just, STOP.

    I suspect you’re also right, the international community doesn’t care what goes on in the Holy Land. Or they care only insofar as disputes spill over and create problems in their nations — they don’t care about justice, per se.

    Maybe the international community despairs that anyone other than God can determine what would constitute justice at this point. Everyone’s angry, everyone blames everyone else. You can’t undo history; you can’t even arrive at an interpretation of history that everyone is going to agree with.

    You can only make a fresh start. That’s what Obama is setting out to do. Instead of criticizing the President for trying to make a fresh start, I think both Israel and Palestine need to sign onto the program.


  4. Jack
    Jun 08, 2009 @ 03:33:16

    We are agreed about having to make a fresh start and agreed that all sides have personal grievances. But I intentionally keep coming back to one point.

    We have no definition of what is truly in dispute and what isn’t. And without that definition we haven’t any ability to try and get beyond this. Because it allows both sides to define it without agreement.

    And as a result both sides continue to feel as if they are getting shafted. So while Obama may be doing this out of altruism he is also lighting a fire that could ignite rapidly.

    BTW, many of the people who were not huge supporters of Netanyahu are rallying behind him because they feel as if they are being attacked. Right or wrong, Obama is moving more Israelis to support the gov;t.


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