President Obama’s Cairo speech seemed to have a very broad, some would say impossible agenda. First off, to make it evident how he sees the political realities on the ground — and give some hint of his priorities. Second, to reach the broadest possible spectrum of believers with his call for religious liberty and tolerance. Third, of course, and the one that got top billing, to reach out particularly to Muslims around the world. And I’m sure there are some others that I’ve forgotten to mention.
Admittedly, the scope of the speech and what some would say impossible expectations of it meant that its religious content would only be part of the story, particularly in an arena in which religion and politics are, as it were, blood brothers.
In a sample of news from abroad, I haven’t found much coverage outside of the opinion that gives more than glancing coverage to the religious themes. I did find lots of analysis, including this very interesting one by NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engel and this one byTimes Online foreign editor Richard Beeston, which argues that Obama evidenced “ground-breaking” respect and humility for the “Islamic world.” And then there is this enlightening Faithworld blog post by Reuters Religion Editor Tom Heneghan, a sometimes commenter on GetReligion.
Here’s a letter with a fascinating group of American signatories that somehow hasn’t yet made it into any mainstream news accounts I’ve seen.
Meanwhile, mainstream news stories include this one from a Christian Science Monitor blog about the reaction of British Muslims. The lede focuses on the political implications of the speech. Only at the very end does religion even sneak into the picture with an allusion to a London-based think tank, the Quilliam foundation:
Welcoming a “nuanced but significant change” in Obama’s language, it added that he “avoided any use of the term “the Muslim world” and instead adopted “Muslim-majority countries” and ‘Muslim communities.’ ”
The statement continued, “There is no monolithic ‘Muslim community,’ nor is there a singular homogeneous entity known as ‘the Muslim world,’ rather there are diverse and distinctive Muslim communities that need to be reflected in our discourse. Using the term ‘the Muslim world’ only serves to bolster the Islamist and Al Qaeda narrative of ‘the West’ against ‘Islam’ — of a battle of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ or ‘good’ versus ‘evil.’
“By omitting this, Obama has taken a positive step in the battle of ideas and in realizing his promise that America is not fighting a war against Islam.”
One emerging theme — that the way Obama talked about Islamic traditions and Muslim communities in was welcomed by moderates — and rejected by hardliners on both sides. That seems to be roughly how the quotes on the France24 site line up (although they do include a positive reaction from a “moderate Islamist.”)
Trust The Guardian to leave you in no doubt of what they really think, whether it’s on the opinion pages or in the news arena. Apparently, according to writer Ian Black, many found the speech sensitively crafted and sincere but lacking substance or novelty.” Later on in the article, he does a number on (I mean, he analyses) the religious content of the speech.
There’s one sentence here of breathtaking cynicism, even for the British press. I’m sure you can figure out which one.
Obama painted a flattering picture of Islamic religion, culture and civilisation, starting with the traditional Arabic greeting, assalaamu alaykum — “peace be upon you” — drawing a thunderous ovation.
As expected, he referred to his own Muslim roots, mentioning the azaan call to prayer that he heard while a child in Indonesia. He played the religious card deftly. America would never be at war with Islam. “The Holy Qur’an 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 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.”
Most other stories I’ve read have not pulled off the feat of making Obama both an opportunist and a sincere, if mediocre orator. For a more straightforward (but is this a “defining moment”?) story that barely mentions religion check out this one from The Australian website.
Well, I could go on, and I’m sure we’ll be returning to this theme (possibly tomorrow). As Terry said, please let us know what you find out there. I must admit that on this particular topic, I find the commentary more compelling than the stories — except, of course, when the story becomes commentary.
The picture of Barack Obama speaking in Cairo is from Wikimedia Commons