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The old lady and the prophet

Could Obama quell the outrage over the anti-Islamic film with an elegant and decisive speech, as he did with the reverend Wright controversy four years ago?

Trygve Svensson
15 September 2012

It seems like history is repeating itself. The Mohammed cartoon controversy, the seventh anniversary of which is right around the corner, started out with innocent enough drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. But these were quickly put to political use by the Danish right-wing government on one side, and conservative Muslim populists on the other, to create a conflict that could have been avoided, with only a small measure of willingness to meet and discuss matters of religion and freedom of speech openly on both sides.

Too many stakeholders had an interest in creating conflict, not solving it. Several people were killed in violent protests, and the level of trust between our cultures decreased. In western Europe we had, and still have, a large, unsettled and confusing debate about whether or not one can hurt people’s religious feelings in the name of freedom of speech. In the Muslim world we still have large groups of people who feel hatred towards the west. In fact, on both sides, we have a deep skepticism towards each others’ values.

As the world is globalized, it is not possible to separate and delineate cultures and religions. It becomes increasingly inappropriate to make one unitary set of rules define what is “acceptable” in art or opinion. That’s why we need to protect and stand by Danish or Swedish cartoonists, or Salman Rushdie for that matter. But we must at the same time be able to state the obvious: a film like “The innocence of Muslims,” its sole purpose being to insult and provoke, does not stand in the liberal tradition of Locke, Mill or Rousseau, but is closer to the illiberal tradition of Julius Streicher and Der Stürmer.

We have freedom of speech so that we can criticize and develop our own society and culture. Not to mock people in the streets of Cairo. Because tolerance and respect for each others’ beliefs is as important an Enlightenment inheritance, as freedom of speech.

President Obama’s first response to the attack in Benghazi was appropriate, honouring the lost lives, taking action to secure other diplomats and committing himself to holding terrorists responsible for their acts. But the more pressing issue right now, as we see riots from Bangladesh to Morocco, is how he should deal with the deeper cultural conflict underlying the crisis, the conflict between conservative Muslims and the west. Can he start transforming this conflict as we approach the peak of election fever in the US?

A form of speech – the now infamous YouTube clip – started this conflict, and is at its heart. Despite all the geopolitics, economy and history which underlie the current clashes, this is a communication problem. The right speech made at the right time by the president could begin to transform the conflict. And Obama excels at this kind of decisive speech.

One place to look for inspiration, could be in what was maybe his finest speech: ”A More Perfect Union”, from the 2008 primaries.  The challenge is similar, not in the essence of the incident, but in the structure of the conflict it represents.  Many of us remember the scandal and uproar when the American public saw videos of Obama’s former priest, Jeremiah Wright, describing 9/11 as being, “America's chickens… coming home to roost" and saying, "… not God Bless America. God damn America."  The media, the competing Republicans, and supporters of Hilary Clinton, all tried to:

a) force Obama into denouncing his former reverend, or

b) defend him, and in that way alienate himself from the American mainstream.

The genius of Obama’s response was that he did neither.  He went to the heart of the conflict: America’s history of slavery and racism. And from that point, he was able to transcend the conflict, offering a “new politics”, where Americans could move forward step by step. He did criticize Wright’s statements, like this:

Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems (…) that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

At the same time, he placed them and his own response into context, like this:

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff wrote in his excellent analysis of the speech: ”The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not only talks about empathy, it creates it.” And empathy is exactly what we need now.

It did not work well for Mitt Romney when he tried to exploit the tragedy by saying that Obama, “apologizes for America." But people in the west still need to hear president Obama defend the values of democracy and freedom of speech. People in the Muslim world still need to hear that the president of the US respects them and their religion.

What it takes is a speech that has the courage to delve deep into the conflict and the reasons why people are angry. A speech that is honest about how differently we look at things like “honour”, “freedom” – or “art” for that matter. And a speech that shows that it is still possible to figure out these things.

Perhaps he could start out with telling the story I`ve heard from many Muslims, about the old lady who used to throw garbage at the prophet Mohammed every day, as he passed on his way to the mosque. One day, the lady didn't come out to throw the garbage. The prophet`s response was to knock at her door and ask for her. When he came to know that the old lady was ill and lying in bed, he helped her out in the house. The prophet did not set fire to her house for showing disrespect, he looked after her.

Four years ago Obama also created a story. About how a people with one of the most hurtful cultural scars in the history of the world, American slavery, could move forward together, looking after each other. The same kind of will to move forward, the will to overcome historical trauma and resentment born from powerlessness, will be necessary to end this conflict. The work will have to be done on a small scale, a change in the way our cultures communicate and understand each other. But the right speech by Obama could, as it did in 2008, help that change to begin.

It could be a history worth repeating.

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