In what was perhaps the most widely anticipated speech delivered by a U.S. president abroad in recent memory, on June 4 President Barack Obama extended a hand to the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, receiving repeated applause and a standing ovation from the audience at Cairo University.
Directed at all Muslims across the globe, the 55-minute speech laid out Obama’s desire for 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.”
Short on specific policy prescriptions, Obama’s speech nonetheless covered virtually all of the issues and sources of tension that have divided the United States from the Islamic world and fueled anti-western Muslim extremism.
“The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars,” he said. “More recently, tension has been fueled 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.”
The resulting “cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” he declared in a speech that was garnished with Arabic greetings, verses from the Koran and other religious texts, and a recounting of his own experiences with Islam—his Kenyan father is from a Muslim family; he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation; and his connection with the Muslim-American community.
“So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed,” he said. “That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.”
Obama’s speech was the highlight of a four-day trip that began on June 3 in Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah, and ended June 5 in Europe, at the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald and the beaches of Normandy for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Obama divided his speech into sections, addressing “violent extremism”; the Israeli-Arab conflict; nuclear weapons and Iran; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and “development and opportunity,” each in turn.
On “violent extremism”—Obama dropped George W. Bush’s use of the phrase “global war on terror” immediately after taking office—he pledged to confront those “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.”
Obama called the actions of Al Qaeda and its affiliates “irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. … 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.”
On Afghanistan, which he called a “war of necessity” after the 9/11 attacks, Obama pledged increased aid for Afghans and neighboring Pakistan, and said the United States would stay until “there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”
On Iraq, which he called a “war of choice,” Obama said the United States “has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future—and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.” The comment was seen as a reinforcement of Obama’s pledged 2010 withdrawal of combat troops from the country.
At the same time, he stressed that Washington had no intention of retaining military bases in either country.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama said both parties’ goals of stability, prosperity, and statehood were “legitimate aspirations.”
But Obama seemed to acknowledge the imbalance in those visions: the Jewish side has already a state—but for Palestinians, statehood remains unrealized.
“Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s,” Obama said, making a rare—for a U.S. politician—reference to the as-yet unrealized state, rather than to the more common and politically safe reference to the “Palestinian people.”
“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop,” he declared in a passage that gained the most repeated applause of the speech.
With respect to nuclear weapons and Iran, he acknowledged a “tumultuous history” between the United States and Tehran, including Washington’s role in the “overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
He stressed that Washington was “willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region down a hugely dangerous path.”
Obama also recognized that “no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons” and reaffirmed his administration’s “commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.”
On democracy, Obama placed his emphasis on respect for human rights and dignity, rather than elections. “[E]lections alone do not make democracy,” he said, stressing the importance of minority rights, rule of law, transparency, and basic freedoms. “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
“I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq,” he declared. “So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other.”
“[H]uman history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests,” he said at another point in the speech. “Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”
Arab media and public opinion expert Marc Lynch wrote on his Foreign Policy blog that the speech struck him “as a thoughtful reflection and invitation to conversation, with some important nuance which might easily be missed.”
“This wasn’t a one-off presidential speech,” he wrote, noting that a television interview with an Arab station early in his presidency, a speech before the Turkish Parliament, a New Year’s message to Iranians, and early and robust efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “set the stage.”
Ali Gharib and Jim Lobe write for the Inter Press Service and are regular contributors to PRA’s Right Web, http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org. You can find Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe.