Obama's Cairo speech: A new beginning (or more of the same)?

Obama's Cairo speech: A new beginning (or more of the same)? June 4, 2009
Worshipped then and now

There was every indication that US President Barack Obama would fill his long-awaited address to Muslims from a Muslim capital with conciliatory, respectful language. On numerous occasions since his oath of office (but rarely before), he has spoken to Muslim people in Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere about the mistrust that has developed over the years since September 11, 2001. But Obama is, at heart, a pragmatist, and while he has a vision Muslims can warm up to, he is mindful not to overreach to the point where things can backfire.

A week ago, I made a reference to these “unsaids,” hoping that Obama would inject some honesty about the issues that are now common knowledge among Muslims worldwide – the lack of political freedom, Israel’s nuclear capabilities, America’s past missteps – that helped fuel conspiracy and hostility towards the US. To a large degree, Obama did this, but in a gentler way than many would like.

Departing from the “with us or against us” rhetoric of his predecessor, Obama referred to “Muslim communities” rather than the “Muslim world,” a nuanced difference (advocated by some Muslim analysts) that recognised the complex and integrated relationships now in place between East and West. It acknowledged, as part of his outreach, Muslim communities in Europe, where tensions have increased in recent years.

He referred to abuses America made towards Muslims in terms of colonialism (explicitly referring to the American-sponsored overthrow of a democratic government in Iran in 1953), civil rights, and Iraq, imploring both sides not to rely on crude stereotypes of each other. Key points were that “Islam was not part of the problem” and “Islam is a part of America,” citing many Qur’anic quotes in the process. An emphasis on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was a shot over the bow for Iran – and Israel. And aligning the Palestinian struggle with the civil rights movement in the United States is exactly the framework of this issue that resonates in the Middle East and elsewhere.

And in the core of Obama’s speech, there was also a fulcrum between the us (America) and them (Muslims) of yore – American Muslims. Over and over, Obama emphasized the freedoms, integration, and contributions made by those in America of the Islamic faith. Between these two audiences, the vision of what could be appears to lie with those few people (described as 7 million strong and, in numbers, one of the world’s largest Muslim countries – both unnecessary exaggerations).

Obama himself made many references to the fact that a speech alone won’t solve all the problems between America and Muslim communities. But then again, Obama was ridiculed by his campaign opponents for relying on pretty words. And look where that got him.

(Photo: Stephen Friday)

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England

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