The president, he did acourtin’ go

800px-barack_obama_at_cairo_university1President 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

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  • Jerry

    There is one thing that it being ignored about his speech in Cairo. In his inaugural speech, Obama said:

    To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

    Maybe some historian some day will link that statement, his invitation of Iranian diplomats to embassies for July 4th celebrations, his Cairo speech and his visit to Buchenwald where he assailed holocaust deniers. In all of this, we’re seeing how President Obama’s civil religion is playing out.

    As an aside, I am struck by his references to the influences on his life from his Cairo speech and his remarks at Buchenwald where he spoke of a great uncle’s experiences and apparent PTSD in liberating a concentration camp as was mentioned in the Reuters’story.

  • Mollie

    I also noticed the disparity between the mainstream media use of the term “Muslim world” and President Obama’s terminology of “Muslim communities” etc.

    It’s actually a significant difference and I wonder whether the media will rethink its use of the phrase . . .

  • Julia

    I thought it was quite significant that the President went from Egypt and the Middle East (or the Near East) where there are many holocaust deniers and scoffers to visit Buchenwald personally. He then reported what he saw and that Eisenhower had foreseen that there would be a day when people would deny it ever happened. He talked about his great-uncle who was so terribly shocked by what he saw. This isn’t just rhetoric. These are strong statements and actions without using insulting or confrontational language.

    I’m not an Obama fan, but I thought that was very bold and a challenge. Muslims showed they admired him; will they accept him as a witness to the Holocaust they don’t want to think about?

    There was some grumbling that Obama didn’t go to Israel since he was in the area, but choosing to see and report on Buchenwald was much more powerful. He spoke about facts, and pointed out the photo of Elie Weisel as a young man in the camp barracks – a real person standing right there.
    Very powerful.

    On the other hand, it might not be a good idea for Obama to place so much of the case for Israel on the Holocaust in Europe. After all, there had been a Zionist movement to settle the area since the late 1800s – way, way before Hitler. That Jewish-owned ground was quite extensive by the time of WWII and was all purchased from willing sellers.

  • Jerry

    After my last post, I found myself looking at one of my favorite sites PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly where, of course, the speech received extensive commentary. I was struck by this comment as it reflects morality as well as tactics:

    … the president said in an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman about his strategy for the Middle East: “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working.” This is brilliant as a strategy. It makes every party face up to its private acknowledgments of what is true, and it challenges them to go public. It makes everyone responsible, including America…

    The accompanying story is also worth looking at:

    there are ways of using the Qu’ran and then there are ways of using the Qu’ran. Often Western commentators or leaders usually use the Qu’ran in order to hit the Muslims on the head with it. In other words, use their own scripture in order to preach to them very selectively. This president, I think, has used a very light touch in terms of trying to use the Qu’ran to convince the Muslims that he believes they belong inside the tent — that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian tradition with the Muslim standing out there. The way he used the Qu’ran, particularly at the end, was to say that there is an Islamic-Judeo-Christian civilization

    Also, I also don’t know if it was deliberately placed or not, but last night’s PBS Newshour had a segment on the Sufi poet Rumi. His poetry clearly appeals to Muslims and non-Muslims and underlies I think the common elements between the religions that Obama promoted in Cairo

  • Daniel Pulliam

    I’m most curious about the few comments I’ve heard that Obama spent time himself reading the Bible and the Koran in preparation for this speech. At some point, I’d hope that a journalist would look into how significantly religious material informed Obama’s words in this speech.

  • Dave

    A commentator on the PBS News Hour made a telling point. The Middle East is a place where every group has an historical narrative and will only tell you theirs. You only hear one narrative at a time. Obama incorporated several narratives, perhaps for the first time in a public speech by a public figure in a Middle Eastern city.

  • Jerry

    Some news stories just caught my eye:

    Islamist urges al Qaeda to open up to Obama’s offer and Hezbollah describes Obama’s speech as smart talk to polish U.S. deformed image and

    Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last Thursday was “soft spoken and eloquent,” said Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iraqi cleric, grudgingly, since he also said he despised it.

    As the NY Times story said, Obama is fighting al Quaeda ideologically.

    I’ve not yet seen anyone report that tries to put together a message from his entire trip which strikes me as: I understand and sympathize with the legitimate, peaceful aspirations of Muslims and Jews based on my personal experience. But if you, meaning various parties in the middle-east, mess with us, remember D-Day.

  • Jerry

    I know I’m being obsessive about his trip, but this caught my attention and I could not resist the temptation to note it:

    Mr. Obama structured his speech almost like a Friday Prayer, blending a political, social and religious message.

    A Friday Prayer? Rather I think this reflects the influence of the sermons he heard in Chicago.

  • Elizabeth

    Jerry, I think Obama has again and again revealed faith in the power of language and of framing to shape belief and policy.

  • Tom Heneghan

    Mollie, that’s an interesting question about Obama’s use of “Muslim communities” instead of “Muslim world.” It may have happened before, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed a western leader speaking like this. I’m not sure, though, that it solves the basic problem working journalists have when writing about the international community of Muslims. There is a single word in Arabic, “ummah”, that refers to the supposed community of all Muslims around the world, whether they’re in the majority or the minority. We have no word in western languages to express this. “Muslim world” is the imperfect shorthand western journalists usually use when a Muslim uses the word “ummah” in whatever languague he or she is speaking.

    Obama tried to get around that — he never uttered the phrase “Muslim world” but spoke several times of “Muslim communities.” So he said he brought “from Muslim communities in my country” the greeting “Assalaamu alaykum.” In his following references to Muslim communities, he spoke of how they had developed algebra, navigation and medical science — a reference to medieval Islamic culture during the Baghdad caliphate. Then he shifts to present-day politics to talk about America defending istelf against extremism “in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened.” Then he says there is underinvestment in education and innovation in “Muslim communities.” After that, it’s “we will encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities.” Then he wants to hold “a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.”

    You can see what’s going on here. “Muslim communities” isn’t that precise a term either. It’s used to talk about American Muslims (a tiny minority), medieveal Islamic culture (a major civilizational force at the time) and then, in several different contexts, present-day societies that could better described as majority-Muslim countries.

    Roughly speaking, “community” would be the right word when he’s speaking about Muslim minorities in countries dominated by other faiths and traditions. But it gives the wrong impression when used to speak about majority-Muslim countries. I don’t think it works as a substitute for the admittedly vague and insufficient term “Muslim world.”

    It also doesn’t reflect the sense among Muslims who use the word “ummah” that all this is somehow interconnected. “Communities” sound like something disconnected, a diaspora, but that’s not the point of view of Muslims who speak about the ummah.

    So what to do? My suggestion is to integrate these Muslim terms into English as quickly as possible so we can express these ideas exactly. English has absorbed so many concepts from other languages that we could make room for a few more. Some are making it — for example, “hijab” appears quite often now in the press. But the media have to make the effort and introduce these new words. My editors don’t always agree and sometimes point out that, as a New Yorker, I also think maven, chutzpah and shlemiel are perfectly normal words all English speakers should understand.

    What? They’re not?

  • Elizabeth

    One of my colleagues spiked your comment, Justaguy — if that is indeed your name, which I doubt, since I can’t find a URL with that name. If you have a scathing personal criticism, it would show considerably more courage on your part if you attached a name to it.

  • Stephen A.

    The clear-thinking and always thought-provoking Camille Paglia has written about Obama’s speech and here’s the relevant bits about religion:

    It was also puzzling how a major statement about religion could seem so detached from religion. Obama projected himself as a floating spectator of other people’s beliefs (as in his memory of hearing the call to prayer in Indonesia). Though he identified himself as a Christian, there was no sign that it goes very deep. Christianity seemed like a badge or school scarf, a testament of affiliation without spiritual convictions or constraints. This was one reason, perhaps, for the odd failure of the speech to acknowledge the common Middle Eastern roots of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, for both of whom the holy city of Jerusalem remains a hotly contested symbol.

    Obama’s lack of fervor may be one reason he rejects and perhaps cannot comprehend the religious passions that perennially erupt around the globe and that will never be waved away by mere words. By approaching religion with the cool, neutral voice of the American professional elite, Obama was sometimes simplistic and even inadvertently condescending, as in his gift bag of educational perks like “scholarships,” “internships,” and “online learning” — as if any of these could checkmate the seething, hallucinatory obsessions of jihadism.

    The Cairo speech will certainly not be Obama’s final word on this important subject, which I hope will remain on the front burner throughout his presidency. But before he can sway hearts and minds, the president will need to show that he understands the ultimate divergence and perhaps incompatibility of major creeds. At the finale, his recitation of soft-focus quotes from the Koran, Talmud and Bible came perilously close to a fuzzy New Age syncretism of “all religions are the same” — which they unequivocally are not. The problem facing international security is that people who believe something will always be stronger and more committed than people who believe nothing — which unfortunately describes the complacent passivity of most Western intellectuals these days.