The upheaval in America’s relations with the Muslim world after 9/11, as well as its content and language, make the eagerly-awaited address by President Obama in Cairo on June 4 an event of great significance. Speculation in recent weeks had focused on how different Obama’s message would be from that of his predecessor, George W Bush. That it would be different was not in doubt. Obama had spoken of the unclenched fist meeting the extended hand soon after his inauguration as president. Recent speculation had centered on the vision and its detail. Those expecting were not disappointed. The reaction fills the spectrum of opinion.
A revolutionary speech has several essential qualities. It must address major problems of the day and generate widespread interest. It must inspire hope and be a pointer to long-term solutions. A revolutionary speech touches the lives of ordinary people, effortlessly overcomes ethnic, racial, religious divides. Its call is for fairness and justice. It must be without extreme language. The time and the place have to be right.
Obama’s address in Cairo addressed two of the biggest problems of our time. One, the Israeli-Arab dispute, at the heart of which is Israel’s festering conflict with the Palestinians. The other, the estrangement of Muslims that has grown to frightening proportions in recent years, no less due to the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory that had found abode in the Bush White House. These two problems, one caused by a historic injustice, the other of George W Bush’s own making, have affected the lives and thinking of Muslims round the world. Progress is unthinkable without addressing them.
Obama has a gift of rhetoric full of inspiration and sympathy for the underdog, as well as evenhandedness, that his predecessor never had. The right sentiment conveyed in an appropriate language matters. Armed with knowledge of history, he paid tribute to the Egyptian civilization, particularly the place Al-Azhar University has in Islamic learning. And he was careful to put Islam at the same par as Christianity and Judaism, the other two great religions that have co-existed in the region for more than two thousand years. Indeed, he gave the speech in the most significant Arab country and, without going to Israel, travelled to Germany to visit the Nazi camp at Buchenwald, where more than fifty thousand Jews, gypsies, resistance fighters and other prisoners were murdered.
To speak the word ‘occupation’ for conditions in which Palestinians live in Gaza and the West Bank is a remarkable departure for an American president. Obama further described the situation of Palestinians as ‘intolerable’. He spoke of tensions fed 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’. He referred to the reinforcement of American troops in Afghanistan. But he also said America did not want to keep its troops in that country. These words are powerful enough to resonate, not only in the Middle East, but also in distant lands.
Obama said he was in Cairo to seek ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims’ around the world, one based ‘on mutual interest and mutual respect’. While expressing Washington’s traditional support for Israel, calling the bond unbreakable, he said, "It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims, have suffered in pursuit of a homeland." Their daily humiliations are real. And then perhaps the most significant part of his address: "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."
The power of the Israel lobby in Washington, especially its dominance in Congress, remains strong. But outside Capitol Hill, the political landscape across the United States has changed. Depending on the perspective from which it is viewed, Barack Hussein Obama both leads and follows the extraordinary momentum of today. Obama’s speech in Cairo has caused shockwaves in Israel’s ruling establishment. In a muted response, the Israeli government said that national security will always be paramount for it. We are heading for extraordinary diplomatic turbulence. And many are eager and waiting to find out what will be beyond this turbulence.
Deepak Tripathi, former BBC journalist, is a researcher and an author with a particular interest in US policy in the Middle East and South Asia. His book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan is to be published by Potomac Books, Inc. in the United States in November 2009.