Mandela: the global icon
**UPDATE** In summary -- Obama began compellingly, but somewhere in the later half the speech began to drag, its thrust lost in rhetoric that was at best earnest, at worst hackneyed. There were other weaknesses: he asked Arabs and Muslims not to be imprisoned by history, but at the same time justified America's support for Israel with evocations of the excesses of the past. Critics will also have expected sterner stuff on women's issues and on democracy in the Arab world, both of which Obama treated swiftly.
Nevertheless, after eight years of arrogance and error, the speech should go some way in convincing many people around the world that Obama's administration is serious about rehabilitating its role on the global stage. Melding ideas and detail with his typical fluency, Obama was the picture of a cool, informed leader. His systematic parsing of the issues also promised an energetic approach to policy-making. Of course, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments more than his words, but as he said early on, the goal of his speech was to shift perceptions. The audience of elite students in Cairo University gave him a resounding ovation; how his speech fared in dustier parts of the "Arab and Muslim world" will be the better measure of its success.
1303 in Cairo Less than ten minutes to go ahead of one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory (Read Nader Hashemi's build-up on openDemocracy). President Barack Obama has braved criticism from many fronts in his bid to speak directly to the "Muslim world". How will he spin US involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will he make a dig at his host, Hosni Mubarak, and other American-backed dictators? Will he apologise for the gross blunders of invasion and torture? Stay tuned for live updates and commentary.
1310 And we're off in Cairo University. Takes Obama a few seconds to speak in Arabic ("shukraan"). He now parses the history of relations between "Islam" and the "west", and accounts for American Islamophobia.
1316 "America and Islam are not exclusive... they share common principles." Nation-state is akin to transcendental global faith? Mohammad Iqbal must be rolling in his grave.
1317 Shout out to the Koran! Took seven minutes.
1320 The historian in me is pleased: Obama mentions that it was Morocco that first recognised the independent thirteen colonies. Good detail. Less impressed by paeans to Islamic learning fuelling the Renaissance. Neverthless, this is typical Obama on good form, moving smoothly from rich theme to illuminating fact.
1323 Obama subtly distinguishes the US from the secularists of Europe; the US protects the veil and the hijab, maintains a mosque in every state, and punishes religious intolerance.
1327 Human history, Obama says, is a record of self-interest, but not anymore. We are now in an era of interdependence, "our progress must be shared". Yet there's steel here: "we must face these tensions squarely". He's warmed up.
1330 He now defends military engagement in Afghanistan, playing a bit to the home audience. Faint echoes of Bush in the evocation of a coalition of "46 countries."
Time for a lovely quote from the Koran: "Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind."
1334 Describes the Iraq war as one of "choice", not necessity. He doesn't apologise or strongly condemn the invasion, but reaffirms commitment to diplomacy and Iraqi sovereignty, and spells out a timeline of withdrawal. All troops out by 2012.
1335 "Unequivocal" about stopping torture and closure of Guantanamo. He's covered most of the bases. Israel-Palestine up next.
1336 "America's bond with Israel is unbreakable." He firmly backs the need for the Israeli state, reminding viewers that he's going to visit Buchenwald after Cairo. A bit too baldly strategic for my liking.
1340 Reaffirms commitment to two-state solution, and like the good doctor he is, lays out prescriptions. Compares the history of African American resistance to slavery and bigotry and nonviolent resistance to apartheid in South Africa to the struggle in Palestinian, arguing that violence is not the way. Many Israelis will bristle at that. Strong of Obama to make the parallel. He's now slamming settlements, and demanding that Israelis must make life more livable for Palestinians. He also demands more compromise from Arab states.
1344 "We will say in public what we say in private." Only Obama can sound credible saying that.
1346 On to Iran. Recognises US involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, and subsequent decades of mistrust. But now it is no time to be beholden to the past: "we are ready to move ahead without any preconditions." Urges Tehran to come to the table.
1350 To the meat of the matter: the issue of democracy ("not an American idea, but a human right") in the Arab world. Are you watching, Hosni?
1351 Takes a dig at both autocrats and neo-cons by affirming that elections alone don't a democracy make.
1353 He's advocating "freedom of religion", and doing well to mention the religious diversity of the Arab world.
Delivers another rebuke to the likes of Turkey and France, that would prevent women from wearing Muslim garb.
1355 Excellent move: he separates the issue of women's dress (above) from women's rights. Eat your heart out, Martin Amis, Jack Straw et al.
1358 "There need not be contradictions between development and tradition." We've returned to opening theme, of moving forward and closer together while remaining rooted (and respecting each other's roots).
1401 A litany of initiatives and partnerships that will tighten cooperation in a blizzard of areas (lost track) between the US and Muslim-majority countries. Obama does soft power.
1403 We've reached the denouement. Fluffy stuff that rises above the bile of "clash of civilisations", but it's still fluffy.
1406 Ends with a comp lit lesson; Obama paraphrases the Koran, Torah and Bible, drawing out their common message of peace. He stumbles over his last line; saying "May God be upon you" instead of "May peace be upon you". The audience doesn't care, as students raucously take up an Obama chant.
Until it hit the headlines after the Mumbai attacks, India did not tend to receive much attention in the international press - at least not as much attention as China, Asia's other major rising power. Even with the Olympics over, China has been the subject of innumerable recent news stories and feature pieces. In noting this, I am not trying to suggest that China gets too much attention; my point is only that India could use a little more. (To this end, openDemocracy has just launched a new editorial section on India, which had been planned for some time.) In the absence of detailed reporting on India, three images of the country have tended to coexist (somewhat uneasily) in Westerners' imaginations.
(This article was first published on 27 November 2008)
The dust has yet to settle on the unfolding tragedy in Mumbai. At the time of writing, hostage situations persist in the Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, and commandos are still clearing the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Officials have not fully agreed on the chronology of events that have left at least one hundred people dead (including the city's anti-terrorist chief Hemant Karkare) and injured hundreds others, but the verdict is already in: this is the worst attack India has ever seen.
It seems Islamist insurgents do read openDemocracy's SWISH reports. Just as Paul Rogers urged, a poster on an al-Qaeda-linked website has suggested that a John McCain presidency would better serve the purposes of the jihadist movement than an Obama one. Revelling in the financial crisis gripping America, webby Islamists hope to further drain US resources in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping the US involved in these wars "requires [the] presence of an impetuous American leader such as McCain, who pledged to continue the war till the last American soldier... Then, al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of his predecessor, Bush."
The message, found and translated from a password-protected website monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group, went on: "If al-Qaeda carries out a big operation against American interests, this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it."
Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaign have responded strongly to the message, which seems to play quite clearly into Obama's hands. The Democratic candidate's camp would be wise to keep fairly quiet about the message, lest they are seen to be playing politics with the musings of "terrorists".
The Moor Next Door blog reports on how the Islamic Society of North America has asked the McCain campaign to stop referring to "Islamic" or "Islamist terrorism", describing the term as insensitive to the Muslim community. A McCain spokesman was swift to reject the request.
McCain's people may be going against the new establishment wisdom. As terrorism.openDemocracy reported yesterday, a study released recently by the National Counter-Terrorism Center has advised against the use of "Islamic" or "Islamist" as adjectives for militancy or terrorism, suggesting "violent cultists" as an alternative. While McCain's policy statements are littered with references to Islamist terrorism and extremism, Obama is careful to eschew any such adjectival use.
McCain hopes that by unflinchingly calling a spade a spade, he'll convince the public that he knows "the enemy" and recognises its obvious threat. Sadly for a country thirsting for moral clarity, the spade is not a spade. Qualifying terrorism as "Islamist" doesn't help explain or counter the threat posed by militant groups like al-Qaida, but only creates a vaguer sense of its "otherness". By being careful, however, Obama gambles that prudence and subtlety can persuade where blunt bluster simply shocks and awes.
An eternal clash
Upon our arrival at the conference at an early 8.30 in the morning we were greeted by a group of anti-choice women silently picketing the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, holding a huge banner stating that "women deserve better than abortions" (ironically enough, my colleague Jane Gabriel remarked that the banner was folded in such a way that at the right angle it read "women deserve better abortions"). I was also handed misguided pro-life leaflets stating (amongst other things) that Marie Stopes was racist. [more...]
The most recent wave of British terror attacks; cars at Glasgow airport, parked outside the TigerTiger nightclub in london and in various other locations, has failed to instil any kind of terror in me. In fact, it has ameliorated many of the concerns I had about further attacks this summer, especially as Brown took on the mantle of PM. Why? Because the terrorits in this case have shown an absolute lack of talent, skill or intelligence in their bomb construction. While the 7/7 bombers were able to undertake the very difficult and dangerous task of mixing peroxide based explosives successfully, this round of petrol, domestic gas cylinders and nail bombs is frankly, laughable.