Obama’s Cairo Speech

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

After reading a transcript of Obama‘s speech in Cairo, I’ll admit that my reaction was mostly positive but tempered by a couple points. There were some very good messages of tolerance, shared values, and coexistence.  But there was a good deal of focus on how believers in the three monotheistic traditions could come together – often leaving out the nontheistic community.

For example:

And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.

So close – if not for three words I would love it.  I certainly don’t share an aspiration to love a god, and yet I consider myself a member of humanity.

Or when Obama said:

Indeed, faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s Interfaith dialogue and Turkey’s leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations.

Not only does he frame it as an effort to bring together the monotheistic traditions, he uses King Abdullah’s Interfaith dialogue as an example.  Does anybody besides me remember how offensive that initiative was?  Here’s how King Abdullah characterized his goal:

“If God wills it, we will then meet with our brothers from other religions, including those of the Torah and the Gospel to come up with ways to safeguard humanity,” he added. The king, who is the guardian of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, said the major faiths shared a desire to combat “the disintegration of the family and the rise of atheism in the world”.

According to the official Saudi Press Agency King Abdullah said “I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

That’s the example he gives?

I don’t mean to misrepresent the speech – there were passages on our shared ethical values that sounded downright humanistic.  I would have loved it if Obama had taken the next step and explicitly mentioned nontheists as sharing in those values.

Should I just ignore the problematic passages?  What did you think of the speech?

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • beckster

    I’m still floating on clouds that we have a president who can say a coherent complex sentence. Yes, I did drink the Kool-Aid :)

  • lazareus

    I too was quite disappointed that you apparently have to accept a deity to have worth in Mr. Obama’s eyes. I voted for him, and consider him a vast improvement over Bush, but I’m seeing some real problems with him too.

  • Giant Robot

    Yes, in principle he should have mentioned non-believers, but the problem is, atheists in America were not the target audience of that speech. He’s speaking to a near-unanimously religious Muslim world, trying to find common ground. (whenever you want to forge a dialogue with Islam, always mention that the three monotheistic religions share the same god).
    If you’re the average guy or gal in Saudi Arabia, hearing the president pay even lip service to non-theists is just going to sound really bad.

  • Infinite Monkey

    To play Obama’s advocate-I didn’t vote fore him-I’d like to point out he was speaking in the Middle East. Even the slightest hint that atheism is tolerated, let alone accepted, probably would have turned the crowd against him in a massive way. I he did the best he could with the goals that he’s trying to reach. I may think those goals are unattainable, but, hey, he’s trying. It is better than him saying “I believe God wants me to bring democracy to this nation.” That was a cut to the bone.

  • http://www.tanystropheus.wordpress.com Tanystropheus

    I concur with lazareus; while I did vote (and campaign) for Obama and consider him immeasurably superior to Bush on most points, I do wish that he wouldn’t neglect to mention the 15% of Americans who consider themselves irreligious. However, this observation doesn’t detract from the promising and progressive speech with which I found myself in overwhelming agreement as a whole.

  • Max Exter

    Mr. Obama has gone out of his way to include non-believers in many of his domestic speeches, including his inaugural address. While I agree with your sentiments, the fact is that a misplaced word can do great harm to an effort that has either been stalled or has moved backwards for decades.

    Put another way, the man is successful because he understands his audience. We weren’t it.

    – me -

  • FresnoMikey

    Hey, he’s a politician from the USA on a trip to the Middle East. How about odds of one in a trillion he is going to nod to atheists this week.

    How about a nod to non-believers couched in a 300 to 600-word speech next year. Realism is my forte. Not quicksand. Okay?

  • Erp

    Obama has given a few bits elsewhere to non-theists; however, given this particular situation, mentioning non-theists would distract from the major purposes (or might merely unite all the other participants in attacking non-theists). Let us see what happens when (and if) actual concrete proposals are being worked on. He didn’t mention Hindus or Buddhists either.

  • Vincent

    Max,
    I disagree that he’s gone “out of his way to include non-believers”; unless you equally would say he’s gone out of his way to mention Jews, Muslims, Christians etc.

    we see a huge distinction between people of faith and non-believers, and we are becoming a large enough, vocal enough group that not including us would be excluding us, and that’s something he should not do. Luckily he knows it.

  • Richard Wade

    Oh give me a break. Obama was talking to the most fanatically religious people in the world, people who see themselves as members of their sub-sect more than members of their major religion, and and see themselves as members of their religion more than citizens of their nations. They live in nations where it is legal to execute atheists. I don’t expect Obama to give us lip service every time he opens his mouth. In a speech with the theme of stopping killing over religion I don’t expect him to mention Abdullah’s Interfaith Dialogue only with the caveat that it should have been more tolerant toward atheists.

    One step at a time, guys. Let’s first get the religionists to stop the slaughter and start thinking rationally. The hatred and vengeance cycle keeps them obsessed with religion. If World War III is ever fought, it will start in the Middle East. Obama’s trying to get people to stop smoking in a dynamite factory. Cut him some slack. This delicate, dangerous process will take many decades.

  • Justin jm

    In a speech with the theme of stopping killing over religion I don’t expect him to mention Abdullah’s Interfaith Dialogue only with the caveat that it should have been more tolerant toward atheists.

    You said yourself that these countries kill atheists. Speaking out against that should be a part of a speech emphasizing religious tolerance.

    I care little whether that mention would go over well with the intended audience; nothing will change if the issue isn’t addressed.

  • Aj

    It’s rather ridiculous to talk about how each of Abrahamic religions means peace with each in a rather large and transparent manner is adding to the very conflict he had been talking about. It’s not anything new from Obama, it’s not like we didn’t already know he was an idiot when it came to religion.

    Who cares that he acknowledges the existence of atheists? George Bush Jr. did that, and so have other presidents. When listing a whole lot of religions he adds “non-believers” onto the end and that’s meant to excuse everything he says.

  • http://www.baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    I stated my views on the lack of attention Obama got from the atheist blogosphere here.
    Obama is a hero to the atheist community, and seems to be above our collect reproach.

  • http://steelmansmusings.blogspot.com Steelman

    In regard to the intended audience of the speech Max put it rather succinctly, and Richard eloquently, that it wasn’t us. I agree.

    And didn’t anyone get the least thrill when Obama mentioned the Treaty of Tripoli? Yes, he left out the exact part that is usually pulled from the debater’s toolbox when arguing for the historicity of the separation of church and state, but still…

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    how believers in the three monotheistic traditions could come together – often leaving out the nontheistic community.

    Big deal. If people of three similar religions can’t get along, how the hell will they be able to accept people of very different faiths or of no faith? Obama is starting in the right place.

  • Richard Wade

    Justin jm, you said:

    You said yourself that these countries kill atheists. Speaking out against that should be a part of a speech emphasizing religious tolerance.
    I care little whether that mention would go over well with the intended audience; nothing will change if the issue isn’t addressed.

    The art of persuasion depends on understanding the emotional state of your audience, and understanding that you cannot reach an irrational person in the same way that you would reach a rational person.

    As an addiction counselor, I would often have to calm down patients who were angry and escalating toward violent outbursts. I had to stand face-to-face with irrational, fearful people who were in terrible pain. Often they were larger and stronger than me.

    I didn’t start out by shaming them, ridiculing them or threatening them. There was plenty that I could have used to shame, ridicule or threaten them, but that tactic would only have gotten me pounded into the ground. Instead, I related to them in simple, gentle ways that could get through the confused haze of their intoxication, their impaired thinking and their pain. The first goal was only to calm them down. Actually getting them to change the beliefs and behaviors that had led to their situation could only come after they were able to trust me enough to listen and to try my suggestions. It took a lot of time and a lot of patience, but tiny steps added up to miles of progress.

    When some day the Middle East is populated by people who have their religion, but who are not constantly attacking those with a slightly different religion, then we can start talking about tolerating people who have no religion.

  • http://www.baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    If this was a year or two ago and George Bush made the same speech (minus being brought up Muslim of course), the atheist blogosphere would be all over Dubya.

  • Karen

    What Richard said (both times).

    You have to start with baby steps in the first stages of rapprochement, not ask people to run a marathon.

    We atheists, I think, are smart enough to understand and accept that.

  • Justin jm

    The art of persuasion depends on understanding the emotional state of your audience, and understanding that you cannot reach an irrational person in the same way that you would reach a rational person.

    Yes, I see. But…

    I didn’t start out by shaming them, ridiculing them or threatening them. There was plenty that I could have used to shame, ridicule or threaten them, but that tactic would only have gotten me pounded into the ground. Instead, I related to them in simple, gentle ways that could get through the confused haze of their intoxication, their impaired thinking and their pain. The first goal was only to calm them down. Actually getting them to change the beliefs and behaviors that had led to their situation could only come after they were able to trust me enough to listen and to try my suggestions. It took a lot of time and a lot of patience, but tiny steps added up to miles of progress.

    I’m not sure that this analogy works. What you did was on a one-on-one basis; what is occurring in the Middle East would be more akin to a support group whose members are actively working behind your back, influencing members about to have a breakthrough in order to make them slip up.

    I understand your basic point, however. Gradual acceptance of an idea starting with ideas related to it and working towards the idea itself seems to be what we typically see in history.

  • billybee

    Beggar’s can’t be chooser’s.
    Our President has included us at other times.
    I give him credit for that.

  • Andrew C.

    I was angrier when he credited the Muslim world with inventing printing and the arch. It was the Chinese and the Etruscans respectively.

  • Luther

    I understand what others are saying about context. However, as long as right wing neo-evangelists exist, we will hear the following over and over to justify that we are a religious nation…

    “I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God.”

  • crescentdave

    I guess what struck me was the utter and absolute stupidity and/or hypocrisy of his statement

    Indeed, faith should bring us together.

    Religions in the middle east. What a uniting force. It’s insight like this, platitudes like this, which will serve to cement the status quo of religious-inspired bigotry, misogyny and militarism.

    Hallefallujah!

  • llewelly

    Obama has made a political compromise. He’s given up mention of non-believers in order to avoid offending Muslims. Saying nothing about the compromise would lead people to believe nothing had been lost. The little bit of awareness we gained from Obama’s previous mentions would be lost. Remarks like ‘Gimme a break’ which try to trivialize the fact that a compromise was made are severe mistake. It’s important to remember that something was given up – even if you believe that what was gained was more important than what was given up.
    I think this compromise is acceptable – but it would be foolish to ignore or downplay the fact that it came at a price. An article like Galef’s, which decries this price, is exactly what we need to move us closer to a political state where mentioning non-believers in a speech directed at Muslims is the preferred choice. Given the horrific stories of non-believers in Muslims majority nations (note Ayaan Hirsi Ali), this is an important goal to work toward – even if a blog article is only a tiny step. This is a crucial part of the consciousness-raising atheists need to engage in.

  • Stephen P

    For a speech in Cairo I’m prepared to cut him a lot of slack. If he goes out of his way to bring God into a visit to the Netherlands or Denmark, then it will be time to bring out the brickbats.

  • http://www.aperfectfool.com Codswallop

    We already know Obama gives a good speech. So what? This was my main critique of Obama during the campaign: he has no accomplishments.

    Please, please, please, Mr. President–DO something. (And if at all possible, could you maybe do something that doesn’t involve spending hundreds of billions of dollars you don’t actually have?)

  • ursulamajor

    He got the memo! In his D-Day speech, he said, “….and those of no faith” in reference to those who gathered to fight.

  • ihedenius

    An entire secular speech would have been nice. Are people forgetting that before Ronald Reagan this was the norm ?

    Thirty-five years ago today, something remarkable happened: A U.S. President concluded a major address with the words “God bless America.” Today, that would not be a big deal. At the time, however, it was unprecedented. In fact, it was the first time in modern history that it had happened.

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1735972,00.html

    That refers to Nixon, it was Reagan who made it standard fare.

  • http://twitter.com/untheist unTheist

    Obama is not Christopher Hitchens!

    He is a politician, trying to gently coax violently separate groups of people together into peaceful conversation.

    Guess what,.. were not one of those groups. He is not talking to us – were not the problem, and going out there and telling them to be atheists is not going to work, so were not the solution either.

    He also did not mention Buddhists, or specifically rastafarian, or biologists. Look at this speech in the context of what he is trying to do and who is trying to reach – not just in your own self interest. Its international politics, not a list of demographics.


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