x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

No surprises - but lots of respect

Analysis Given the depths to which US-Muslim relations sank during the Bush era, Obama's speech may be qualified as a rousing success.

A cameraman films as the US president Barack Obama delivers his highly-anticipated address to the Muslim world.
A cameraman films as the US president Barack Obama delivers his highly-anticipated address to the Muslim world.

CAIRO // Say this for Barack Obama's keenly awaited speech in Cairo yesterday: there was no Muntader al Zaidi in sight, and the American president was not pelted with shoes. Given the depths to which US-Muslim relations sank during the administration of George W Bush, that in itself may qualify the speech as a rousing success. Still, after months of build-up and the disclosure by his press secretary that Mr Obama "has obviously been focused on the speech for a long time, dating back to the campaign", expectations that the president would set forth specifics for a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement were running high, particularly among Arab Muslims.

To their chagrin, the speech - part of what the White House calls an ongoing effort to "reboot" America's image in the Muslim world - contained no surprises. There were no ultimatums or timetables. The closest thing to throwing down a gauntlet of any kind was a declaration regarding Iran's unclear nuclear intentions. "We have reached a decisive point," the president said. "This is not simply about America's interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."

Muslims living in East Asia, Africa or the Americas had little reason for exhilaration, either. Although the speech was intended for the entire Muslim world, it focused on pressing issues in the Arab Middle East and South and Central Asia - a reflection of where the most vexing foreign policy challenges for the United States lay. Even so, the address to an audience of some 3,000 people - including the parliamentary bloc of Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood - was more than a rehashing of speeches that the president has given previously on the subject of US-Muslim relations.

By turns earnest, cajoling and professorial, the 47-year-old president presented a sharp contrast to his predecessor. He stumbled over his pronunciations of hijab and zakat and mislabelled Dubai as a "country", but he winningly rolled his "r" when invoking the Quran and sailed through the traditional Arabic greeting. More importantly, he showed an often beguiling command - almost unimaginable for Mr Bush - of Islam's contributions to civilisation and in particular, to his own country.

In a section of his speech that was part civics and part history lesson, Mr Obama set out to alleviate some of the demonisation and ignorance that has caused Americans, on the one hand, and Muslims on the other, to cast each as the loathsome, sinister "other", especially since the September 11 attacks. In that, the US president was successful, punctuating his comments with snippets of personal biography that show him in his most compelling light.

He drew one of his most enthusiastic ovations - one of 40 - when he declared: "I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear" - this from an African-American who knows something about "negative stereotyping". Indeed, in large part yesterday, the messenger was the message, and Mr Obama's speech showed how powerful that alchemy can be, especially when it is applied to issues pertaining to the oppressed, the disadvantaged and victims of prejudice.

He made a stirring defence of women's rights, saying, "our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons", while adding that he respects those women who choose to live in traditional roles as long as it is their choice. Also, he took up the cause of education and unemployed Arab youth, saying development in oil-rich Gulf states cannot be "sustained" while young people are out of work and too few resources are invested in education and innovation.

Mr Obama offered no sweeping declarations about democracy and human rights. In doing so, he avoided unflattering comparisons to his predecessor's administration and reduced the chances that his own would be charged with hypocrisy in the future. It was in Cairo in 2005 that Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, declared that for 60 years, United States had pursued stability at the expense of democracy" in the Middle East and "achieved neither". Now, she added, "we are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people".

A year later, she explained the violence unfolding during Israel's invasion of Lebanon as democracy's "birth pangs". Still, on the all-important Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr Obama seemed wanting yesterday. He arrived here from talks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and amid persistent speculation that the administration is preparing to unveil a "grand bargain" for Middle East peace. While he outlined principles that will govern the new administration's policies in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, he only reiterated, though sometimes movingly, previous statements about the Israelis and Palestinians. Sooner rather than later, Mr Obama must give substance to his oft-used mantra of "change".

To be sure, Mr Obama does not risk irrelevance; no leader of the world's superpower, for good or ill, does that. He does, however, risk inconsequence when it comes to an issue that matters deeply to Arab Muslims. The stakes are high and time appears short. Last month, Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that a new Arab-Israeli war would break out within 18 months unless a comprehensive peace agreement was reached.

Furthermore, while Mr Obama enjoys favourable approval ratings across the region, recent public opinion indicates that the support is soft and could fade quickly. To his credit, Mr Obama called on Israel to fulfil its promise to stop settlement building and has made it clear that it should sign on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet he does not get extra credit for measures that many Arabs regard as common sense. Furthermore, these welcome moves have only increased the appetite for more.

Making a "new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world, as Mr Obama proposed yesterday, is probably going to require that he satisfy that hunger - and quickly. cnelson@thenational.ae