The Cairo speech: letter to America

Godfrey Hodgson
8 June 2009

President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 lived up to its billing as an attempt to allay the mutual suspicion between the United States and Islam and chart a fresh course. It went further than many expected in offering two audiences - Israelis and Arab Muslims (in particular Palestinians) a "moral" frame of reference for a hoped-for new phase of engagement. But the speech had a third (and less-noticed) audience: people in the United States itself, especially those who for whatever reason have negative views of Muslims and their religion. 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006); A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009) This gave the speech an injection of domestic political significance. The president will need the support or at least acquiescence of people at home if he is to make progress with his strategy for peace in the "greater middle east". An attitudinal shift towards the Muslim world in the US may be essential to this effort.

Obama's urge to distinguish his approach from that of his predecessor to an area of vital importance to American foreign policy was plain. Where the crude and polarising rhetoric of the George W Bush administration and many of its supporters served to fuel hostility to the Muslim world (often hardly distinguishing between Islam and the 9/11 bombers, for example), Obama made an enlightened effort to show sympathy and some understanding of Islam.

He several times quoted the Qur'an, and was applauded when he did. He highlighted what a less sensitive and courageous man might have avoided, that his middle name is Hussein. "I'm a Christian", he said, "but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago with communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith."

But perhaps just as important as his address to Muslims, his speech contained a challenge to prejudice - while conveying a message to those Americans troubled by any impression that their president might seem "too close" to his Muslim hosts. So he attacked anti-semitism and repudiated holocaust-denial (knowing that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is far from the only influential Muslim to flirt with that ugly perversion of history); and proclaimed his commitment to America's "unbreakable bond" with Israel.

Moreover, Obama balanced his "outreach" to Muslims with strong words on what they must do if the chasm between Islam and the west is to be bridged. He evoked the "humiliation" and suffering of the Palestinians in explicit terms; but he denounced violence, and singled out the very kinds of violence with which the Palestinians have been especially associated. "It is a sign neither of courage nor power", he said, "to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered".

The speech was full of proud references to America's values and to his belief in their universal applicability. But where his predecessor and the neo-conservatives who defined the George W Bush administration's profile in the world projected the sense that they had a monopoly of belief in democracy, Obama presented America's values as universal in a different way. They were no longer to be understood as instruments that the United States intended to disseminate everywhere (by force if necessary), but instincts that were already shared by people of goodwill, including (of course) Muslims; and which only needed the right conditions to be realised.

The homeland campaign

The way that this theme was elaborated in the second (and perhaps less reported) half of this truly remarkable speech really demonstrated both the breadth of Barack Obama's human insight and his political talent.

Here his focus moved onto four issues so broad that they subsume even the conflicts of political and religious communities across the middle east: economic development, tolerance, democracy, and (with detail and depth) women's rights.

Some of the president's listeners, and not least hardened reporters - accustomed to tired rhetoric when politicians turn to the subject of their ideals - might have missed two important elements of what this second half of his speech was intended to achieve.

First, he was making the point that these issues are of equal interest to the participants in the region's quarrels, as well as to others - that they are, indeed, universal concerns. Second, he was in a subtle way addressing the concerns of Americans about Islam and about the effort he proposes to make to improve America's relations with the religion's followers.

The challenge for the president is that there are large numbers of people in the United States and elsewhere in the west who are (or have become in the course of the 2000s) generically critical of "Islam" or its adherents - and are sceptical about the possibility of improving relations with the imagined "other". They are found, moreover, in all sections of society - and far beyond members of the unreconstructed right. Many American women, for example - perhaps liberal American women even more than conservative - see the Muslim Arab world as a place of irredeemable sexism.

The president went some way to respond to this by connecting his belief in the equal value of daughters and sons, and the importance of women's education, to an unequivocal statement that Muslim countries need to improve the rights and opportunities of their female citizens. In this he was also seeking to offset any worries that, in his effort to reach out to Muslims, he might be tempted to abandon values that are implanted in American society.

Obama's references to democracy and human rights were similarly motivated: both to signal a commitment to his Cairo audience (with an unmistakable if indirect judgment of the brutal regime of his host, Hosni Mubarak) and to meet the concerns of (especially) liberal Americans about the lack of political freedoms in this part of the Muslim world. He was applauded by many of his Egyptian listeners when he pointed out that "there are some who advocate democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others." But the message was for the people at home also.

Many commentators are right to point out that it will take more than even the most skilful of speeches to remove mutual suspicion between the west and Islam, let alone between Israel and the Arab-Muslim world.

This proposal of "a new beginning" did, however, reinforce my conviction that Barack Obama is one of the most gifted and serious statesmen the world has seen in action for a very long time. In Cairo, he showed remarkable insight into the embittered politics of the middle east. Even more, he displayed once again his deep understanding of the many facets - the fears and the ideals, the prejudice and the pride, the caution and the generosity - of the American people.

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Kanishk Tharoor, "Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog" (4 June 2009)

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