Obama’s Middle East Speech: reactions

It’s hard to know where to start given the online attention Obama’s Cairo speech has received. The LA Times ‘Babylon and Beyond’ has two blog posts detailing reactions from Ghana to America to Palestine. So I thought I’d satisfy first by highlighting just some of the comment and opinion:

Writing at the Guardian, Maajid Nawax of the Quilliam Foundation praises Obama for moving away from the ‘West vs. Islam’ dichotomy:

“How does the notion of the “west” addressing the “Muslim world” do anything to further integrate Muslims who are nothing but western, born and raised in the metropolises of Europe? What is this elusive “Muslim world” that only Islamists wish to resurrect? And assuming it exists beyond a purely religious community (the ummah), why is it absurdly juxtaposed against the “west”? The opposite of west is east, not Muslim. There are soon to be Muslim-majority cities in the heart of Europe. Russia has an official Mufti, and more Muslims than many so-called “Muslim countries” in the Middle East. China has more Muslims than many Arab countries. How would a globally televised speech given from the heart of Paris to the “Christian world” of the west be received?”

This was an issue I mentioned in my undergraduate dissertation. Why do we refer to nation states whom have a majority Muslim population as ‘Muslim countries’, as if the religious aspect of some of the population is the defining characteristic of the country? We wouldn’t refer to South Africa or Argentina as a ‘Christian countries’ – indeed, with the occasional exception of Israel, no other set of countries from Morocco to Pakistan are referred to so often with a prefix denoting the majority of the citizen’s religion. Hence, the term ‘Muslim-majority’ is favourable, though still not ideal.

Reza Aslan, whose new book ‘How to Win a Cosmic War‘ is back at my house waiting to be delved into, broadly praised Obama in the Guardian for openly stating some obvious truths:

Obama did something practically unheard of for an American president: he told the truth, and frankly. Obama acknowledged that colonialism had denied “rights and opportunities to many Muslims”, that Muslim countries have often been treated as little more than proxies of the west, that Muslims sometimes have cause to view the US and the larger western world as hostile to Islam, and that the United States has not always lived up to its ideals.

Writing at Middle East Youth however, Esra’a justifies why she didn’t listen to the speech: because no foreign leader can change these societies, only those in the region can:

I’m all for hope and optimism, but political naivité makes me ill. One thing is for certain: We’re on our own. The Obama team are not going to solve the crimes and injustices that we witness every day of our lives. Obama is a fine president so far, and should be thanked and encouraged for speaking widely against the abuses of the “war on terror” and referring to us in a tone that doesn’t reek of bigotry and racism. But in a few years his administration will be replaced. And then what?

Esra’s continues to state that

You should be extremely hopeful that change will definitely occur. But you should also be just as hopeful that you’re good enough to create it yourself: and it’s NOT going to start with a political revolution, or simply overthrowing a government with another. It first starts with changing the perceptions of those around you in favor of all human rights and the society that you wish to live in.

I can clearly see Esra’a’s point: as Obama admitted, one speech cannot change everything. Activists and writers such as those at Middle East Youth are in a much better position than me to analyse the internal debates and problems in societies in the region, but if the ‘wrong perceptions’ exist, it will be slow process to overcome. Indeed, it is also worth asking what perceptions we would then like to see those in the Middle East work towards: and surely ones that develop from within those societies, and as a result of those within the society, is going to be far more successful than an artificially imposed one from the West.

The problem here is I suspect that such perceptions: the right of minorities, the rights of women, tolerance for other faiths etc. – are those same ones practised (with varying degrees of success) in the West, and thus, when they are being developed, a backlash could take place against ‘outside values’. So how does the Middle East advance towards ‘freer’ societies if the values needed are tainted with ‘the West’: or would this be overstating not only the antipathy towards the West, but the West’s disputable ownership of these values?

The extent to which Obama spoke about democracy was also an issue much commented upon, with some feeling he skimmed over the issue. Mahmmod

Steering back to the speech, The Economist sums up what many have been saying about Obama’s words:

Yet the constant refrain, heard on Cairo’s streets as well as from media pundits, is that Arabs and Muslims would like to see Mr Obama’s words matched by deeds. “To win our hearts, you must win our minds first, and our minds are set on the protection of our interests,” declared one of the reams of editorials, columns and open letters from across the region before Mr Obama spoke.

Another frequent refrain, such as from Chris Philips, has been that Obama should not have chosen Cairo and Egypt, ruled over by a dictator as the location for his speech. Mahmood however, makes a valuable point:

Then I try to select an alternate of the 22 Arab countries where he could have used instead, but I fail to find a single one which could be worthy of such an occasion.

Iraq would be unthinkable and would frame the speech in entirely the wrong context; Saudi Arabia is probably a little too autocratic (though not for a pre-speech visit and bling of course). Indeed, the only two democracies in the Middle East (arguably) are Israel and Lebanon. Though the part about settlements might have been even more powerful coming from within Israel, the rest of the speech would have been mute. Lebanon, being in the midst of an election that could see a Pro-Syrian, anti-Western faction win, may not have welcomed one of the highest profile visits of an American President to the Middle East in their back yard. Whether the speech had been in Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait: he was always going to be faced with such criticism. And it is better, surely, to preach in a nation that needs democracy that one which has already achevied it.

For even more reaction, see MEMRI’s (Middle East Media Research Institute) report, citing over a dozen Middle East papers and columnists. Some notable ones:

Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) “Now that the speech is over, and Obama has left [the region], an important question arises: What is the desired Arab and Islamic reaction to [it]? In the Arab arena, the Arab League should call a meeting on the leader or foreign minister level, to draw up a joint position giving increased support to the Arab peace initiative, based on Israel’s current obstinacy. In the Islamic arena, the Organization for the Islamic Conference should call a conference or issue a comprehensive communiqué confirming the Islamic countries’ and organizations’ support of the interfaith dialogue.”

The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, in its editorial, called Obama’s speech “the culmination of the statements [promising] change that began during [Obama’s] election campaign, and gained momentum after his victory… [It can be said,] without exaggeration, that Obama’s speech will enter the annals of history as one of the most important documents illustrating the desire of the West, headed by the U.S., to [adopt] a new stance towards Islam and the Muslims, after centuries of aggression and hostility.”

Whether the reaction to Obama’s speech is cynical and dissmissive, thoughtful and hopeful or widely over optomistic, there is no doubt it’s intention and sincerity. The few reactions detailed above and the thousands, published or otherwise, that haven’t been mentioned, are as important as the 55 minutes he spent talking.

As for me: I thought it was refreshing in some senses and banal, at least in terms of policy, in others. The comments about colonialism were welcome, as were those on women’s rights and settlements. Then again, when he spoke about those citizens, innocents, killed on 9/11, I would imagine many would think about those citizens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, innocent, being killed in US airstrikes. Obviously one is deliberate and one isn’t, but it could be the reaction of some.

Any speech can be picked apart and much of it refuted. But providing it provokes some debate, some change and indeed, action, then it will have done some good.


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