First, it opened daylight between the US and Israel. Israeli
settlements on the West Bank are impediments to a two-state solution
and a stable peace with Palestine. Obama did not split hairs. He did
not distinguish between increments to existing settler populations by
birth versus immigration with or without adding a room to an existing
house. The United States, he said, does not accept the legitimacy of
continued Israeli settlements. Period.
The American Israel
Political Affairs Committee, which advertises itself as America’s
pro-Israel lobby, cannot have been pleased to hear that sentence. But
without some semblance of independence from Israel, the US cannot be a
credible broker between the two sides. It is not necessary to treat the
actions of Israeli and Palestinian protagonists as morally equivalent
in order to understand that they share responsibility for decades of
deadlock. New settlements and the expansion of existing ones merely
feed Palestinian suspicions that Israel intends permanently to occupy
the West Bank. Nor did Obama’s criticism of Israeli settlements prevent
him from also stating: Palestinians must abandon violence. Period.
alongside his candor, he showed respect. The most effective discourse
on controversial topics involving Islam and Muslims is both sensitive
to feelings and frank about facts, as I argue in a forthcoming book
(Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam). Inter-faith
dialogues that rely on mutual self-censorship–an agreed refusal to
raise divisive topics or speak hard truths – resemble sand castles.
Empathy based on denial is unlikely to survive the next incoming tide
of reality. Respect without candor, in my view, is closer to fawning
than to friendship.
As Obama put it in Cairo, ‘In order to move
forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our
hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. As the
Holy Quran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.”
His listeners applauded – most of them, perhaps, because he had cited
their preferred Book, but some at least because he had defended
accuracy regardless of what this or that Book might avow.
partnership that Obama offered his audience, sources of tensions were
not to be ignored. On the contrary, we must face these tensions
squarely. He then followed his own advice by noting that extremists
acting in the name of Islam had in fact killed more adherents of their
own religion than they had Christians, Jews, or the followers of any
other faith. In the same candid vein, he noted with disapproval the
propensity of some Muslims to repeat vile stereotypes about Jews, the
opposition of Muslim extremists to educating women, and the fact of
discrimination against Christian Copts in Egypt, the very country in
which he spoke.
Third, his speech was notable for what it did
not contain. The word ‘terrorism’,’ a fixture of the Manichean rhetoric
of George W. Bush, did not occur once. Back in Washington, in his 26
January televised interview with Al Arabiya, Obama had used the phrase
Muslim world 11 times in 44 minutes – an average of once every four
minutes. In the run-up to his Cairo speech, the White House had
repeatedly hyped it as an address to ‘the Muslim world.’ Yet in the 55
minutes it took him to deliver the oration, the words ‘Muslim world’
were never spoken. He must have been advised to delete the reference
from an earlier draft of his text.
I believe the excision
strengthened the result, but not because a ‘Muslim world’ does not
exist. Admittedly, one can argue that 1.4 billion Muslims have too
little in common to justify speaking of such a world at all. But the
already vast and implicitly varied compass of any ‘world’ diminishes
the risk of homogenization. One can easily refer to ‘the Muslim world’
while stressing its diversity. Many Muslims and non-Muslims already use
the phrase without stereotyping its members. No, the reasons why Obama
avoided the phrase were less definitional than they were political in
Had Obama explicitly addressed the Muslim world in
Cairo, he would have risked implying that his host represented that
Muslim world, as if Egypt were especially authentic–quintessentially
Muslim–in that sphere. That would have been poorly received in many of
the other Muslim-majority societies that diversely span the planet from
Morocco to Mindanao.
Several years ago a professor from Cairo’s
Al-Azhar University, which co-sponsored Obama’s appearance, told me in
all seriousness that Indonesian Muslims, because they did not speak
Arabic, were not Muslims at all. Obama did not wish to be read by the
followers of ostensibly universalist Islam as endorsing such a
parochially Arabo-centric conceit.
The US president could, of
course, have mentioned the Muslim world and in the next breath denied
that it was represented by Egypt, a country under an authoritarian
regime with a reputation for corruption of near-Nigerian proportions.
But it was far smarter and more effective for Obama to have shunned the
phrase altogether, thereby avoiding the need to clarify it and risk
implying that his hosts were somehow less than central to Islam, less
than paradigmatically Muslim. Such a candid but insensitive move would
have triggered nationalist and Islamist anger not only in his Egyptian
audience, but in other Muslim-majority countries as well. Indonesian
Muslims, for example, would have wondered with some apprehension
whether to expect comparably rude behavior were he to visit their own
country later this year.
Obama’s listeners at Cairo University
were, instead, subjected to twin eloquences of absence and silence:
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s not being present, and Obama’s not
mentioning him at all. Eloquent, too, was the absence of Israel from
his itinerary. This omission was not a sign of hostility toward Tel
Aviv, however. He termed the US-Israel bond ‘unbreakable.’ Not visiting
Israel merely signaled that Washington on his watch would not limit its
foreign-policy horizon to what any one country would allow.
mispronounced the Arabic term for the head covering worn by some Muslim
women. The word is hijab not hajib. But that small slip was trivial
compared with the brilliance and timeliness of what he had to say.
Rhetoric is one thing, of course; realities are quite another. The
tasks of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum and improving
relations with the heterogeneous Muslim world are more easily discussed
than done. Illustrating that Muslim world’s extraordinary diversity are
the many and marked differences between Turkey, where Obama spoke on 6
April on his first overseas trip, his Egyptian venue two months later,
and Indonesia, which he is likely to visit before the end of 2009.
his choice of Cairo was announced, several commentators advised him to
give his Muslim world speech in June in the Indonesian capital,
Jakarta. Rather than risk legitimating Mubarak’s autocracy, they
argued, he should celebrate Indonesia’s success in combining moderate
Islam with liberal democracy.
Following their advice would have
been a mistake. Not only did speaking in Cairo enable Obama boldly to
address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a podium close to its
Middle Eastern epicenter. Had he traveled to Indonesia instead, his
visit would have been tainted by an appearance of American intervention
in the domestic politics of that country, whose President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono is up for re-election on 8 July.
his career, Yudhoyono completed military training programs in the US,
at Fort Benning and Fort Leavenworth, and earned a master’s in
management from Webster University in St. Louis. No previous Indonesian
head of state has had a closer prior association with the United
States. Yudhoyono’s rivals for the presidency are already berating him
and his running mate as neo-liberals who have pawned Indonesia’s
economy to the capitalist West. Obama could feel comfortable keeping
the autocrat Mubarak at arm’s length in Cairo, but in campaign-season
Indonesia the US president would have been torn between behaving
ungraciously toward his democratically chosen host and appearing to
back him in his race for re-election.
ratings among Indonesians are even better than Obama’s are among
Americans. The July election is Yudhoyono’s to lose. But the winner’s
new government will not be in place until October. The US president was
wise to postpone visiting Indonesia until after its electoral dust has
cleared and the next administration in Jakarta has taken shape. A
gathering of leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum,
which Obama is expected to attend, is conveniently scheduled for
mid-November in Singapore. He could easily visit Indonesia en route to
or from that event.
An Indonesian journalist in Cairo
interviewed Obama shortly after his speech. The president virtually
confirmed this November itinerary by saying that his next trip to Asia
would include Indonesia. He said he looked forward to revisiting the
neighborhood in Jakarta where he had lived as a child, and to eating
again his favorite Indonesian foods – fried rice, bakso soup, and
rambutan fruit among them.
A trifecta happens when a gambler
correctly predicts the first three finishers of a race in the correct
order. Obama appears to have bet his skills in public diplomacy on this
sequence: Ankara first, then Cairo, then Jakarta.
One can ask
whether his actions will match his words, and whether the US Congress
will go along with his prescriptions. But with two destinations down
and one to go, Obama is well on his way to completing a trifecta in the
race for hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
A version of this essay appeared in AsiaTimes Online on 6 June 2009.