x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'This cycle of suspicion must end'

US president calls for honesty in landmark speech to the global Islamic community.

A Pakistani man listens to the US president Barack Obama at an electronic shop in Karachi, Pakistan.
A Pakistani man listens to the US president Barack Obama at an electronic shop in Karachi, Pakistan.

CAIRO // In his much-anticipated speech to the Islamic world yesterday, Barack Obama, the president of the United States, challenged Americans and Muslims to move past an acrimonious history to embrace their shared values and a common humanity.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace," Mr Obama said during the opening of his hour-long address. "This cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

The president's speech at Cairo University yesterday fulfilled a campaign promise he made months ago to address the entire Muslim world - a community estimated to include about 1.5 billion people - from the capital of a Muslim-majority nation.

As president, Mr Obama has twice before appealed directly to the people of Muslim nations - once in an internet video speech to Iranians marking the Nawruz holiday in late March and again in Turkey in early April. But what set yesterday's speech apart was Mr Obama's ambitious appeal to the global Islamic community and his repeated entreaties to honesty, a virtue that Mr Obama implied was lacking in the current discourse between the United States and the global Islamic community.

"I know there's been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point," the president told a crowd of young Egyptians, clerics, leaders of Egyptian civil society and government officials. "But I am convinced that 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. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other to learn from each other to respect one another and to seek common ground."

The president's choice last month to speak from Cairo, the capital of Egypt, was controversial to some who saw it as an approbation of the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, who has served as president of Egypt for nearly 30 years, most of it under emergency law. That Mr Obama addressed human rights, freedom of religion and women's rights as the fourth, fifth and sixth items in a list of seven talking points struck some analysts as further indication that the Obama administration will not make democracy building and liberalism a priority in its Middle East policy.

"My expectations were very low primarily because of the selection of Egypt as the location," said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American author, in a telephone interview after yesterday's speech. "I thought the weakest parts of the speech were the parts about democracy promotion, which amounted to little more than just platitudes instead of any kind of direct discussion about what the United States is willing to do to push the dictators of the region, not least Mubarak, into creating the kind of spaces for opposition movements like the Muslim Brotherhood," Egypt's outlawed opposition political movement.

While several analysts were disheartened by a perceived inattentiveness to issues of democracy and human rights, many said the speech was groundbreaking in its tone. What was perhaps most important about Mr Obama's words, some said, was the one that he did not use: terrorism. "What we found remarkably positive is that the president did not once use the word terrorism or terror even," said Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

"That was a very positive gesture, not just because of the connotation of the word from the Bush years but because this problematic term does not yet have any agreed definition in international law. "We saw this as a shift in discourse on the issue. We welcomed the phrase violent extremism with reference to such activities." While Mr Obama's use of "violent extremism" marked a departure from the "war on terror" rhetoric of George W Bush, the previous US president, the phrase also formed the crux of the new president's message to Muslims that despite America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and its almost unconditional support for Israel, Islam itself is not a target.

"America is not - and never will be - at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security," said the president, echoing his past statements that directly denied an American "holy war" against Muslims. "We reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children." Yesterday's speech employed other subtle turns of phrase that may have represented a shift in the way America presents its agenda to the world. Perhaps most important to Muslims was Mr Obama's use of the word "Palestine" instead of "the Palestinian people". The change was incremental yet significant, analysts said, because it lent rhetorical legitimacy to Mr Obama's calls for Palestinian statehood. But he did not, noted Mr Bahgat, call for the dismantlement of existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, urging only that Israel put an end to "continued" settlement activity.

In that sense, some observers said, the speech offered few new policy ideas or proposals. What it did offer, however, was Mr Obama himself: his biography, his identity and his personality. The president referenced his cosmopolitan personal history that has given him more direct exposure to Islam than any previous American president. In urging Hamas to abandon its violent methods, the president also likened the Palestinian resistance to America's civil rights movement, whose use of passive resistance led to the changes that culminated in America's first black president.

And it was perhaps the president's personal countenance that, just as he praised the qualities of a "true democracy", prompted some young audience member to shout "We love you!" from the upper balcony of the auditorium. "Thank you", was Mr Obama's understated response.