First Published: 2009-06-03

 
Obama in Cairo, an Opportunity to Restore Faith
 

The rhetoric of counter-terrorism and the seemingly blatant anti-Islamism of some American blowhards have made the United Sates appear to many in the Muslim world as hostile toward Islam rather than hostile toward terrorism, says Edward S. Walker, Jr..

 

Middle East Online

Clinton, New York - US President Barack Obama is being criticised for choosing Cairo as the venue for his speech to the Muslim world. According to some human rights and pro-democracy activists, this validates autocratic governance in general and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime in particular.

Yet, where would these critics suggest he give his speech? Cairo is home to Al Azhar, a leading centre of mainstream Islamic thought, and it houses some of the largest universities in the Arab world where future generations are taught. Is there a better venue to reach out to the people of the region, particularly the young, and to Muslims everywhere?

In any event, Obama's message should not be targeted to specific leaders or to any one country. His message should target those who have lost faith in America over the past decade. His objective should be to start to restore that faith.

To do this, Obama has to get back to some basics. He needs to reiterate America's strong commitment to justice and the rule of law – a process he has started by banning torture and opposing the indefinite detention system that was established at Guantanamo Bay prison.

Obama must advocate American values like democracy, not because we seek to impose our values on others, but because we believe that democracy is the greatest shield against radicalism and the greatest guarantor of stability and fair governance. People who take part in governing themselves through democracy are not likely to look for radical alternatives, which offer writ rather than rights.

If the ruling elites in Muslim-majority countries fear radicalisation, then their best antidote would be to open up the political environment so that more people can participate as part of the system rather than victims to it.

No matter how eloquent the speech is, careless terminology can undercut the intended message, particularly when translation is involved. Today we sometimes fail to make a clear distinction between the words "terrorist" and "Islamist", for example. We would do well to remember that a "fundamentalist" is not by definition a "terrorist". If Obama wants to get his point across he must be very careful not to confuse devotion with deviation.

The rhetoric of counter-terrorism and the seemingly blatant anti-Islamism of some American blowhards have made the United Sates appear to many in the Muslim world as hostile toward Islam rather than hostile toward terrorism. This misperception has had a devastating impact on attitudes in the Middle East region in particular.

As important as they are, words are no substitute for policy and the position the United States will take, especially regarding the Palestinians and Iran. Too many people, both in the Middle East and across the Muslim world, see American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians as a zero-sum game: we support Israel so we must be opposed to the Palestinians.

In fact, without a strong relationship with Israel, we cannot help the Palestinians. But Obama can use this speech to articulate that Palestinian suffering is the antithesis of US policy in the region and that alleviating this suffering is high on his agenda. This is not a commitment that can be delegated or ignored.

In the case of Iran, Obama should indicate his intention to continue in the spirit of engagement demonstrated by his Persian New Year’s address. Cooperating on regional security issues like Afghanistan and Iraq would contribute to peace and stability in the region and help rebuild the trust that is necessary for establishing healthy diplomatic relations between the two countries. Iran plays an important and influential role in the region, and Obama would do well to convey his willingness to work with the Iranian government in an effort to ensure that the role is constructive.

Obama's Cairo speech is his opportunity to demonstrate that the United States is burying the American triumphalism of the past eight years once and for all. It is a chance to convince the world that we have renounced the false prophets who claim that we always know best or that we can impose our way of life on another society, and to show that we are ready to listen to and work with others.

Edward S. Walker, Jr. is former president of the Middle East Institute, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and US Ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. He is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and teaches global politics at Hamilton College. This article was written for the Common Ground and can be accessed at GCNews.

 

Dialogue remains distant as Arabs vow to defeat Iran 'puppet' in Yemen

Guarded optimism as Iran nuclear talks close in on deal

Saudi police officers wounded in Riyadh drive-by shooting

World leaders show solidarity with Tunisia in march against extremism

Oil prices fall after Yemen-inspired gains

Egypt renews calls for creation of joint military force at Arab summit

Saudi ambassador to return to Sweden after diplomatic spat

Libya forces ‘withdraw’ from frontline bases near oil ports

Qaeda seizes 'majority' of Syria northwestern city of Idlib

Torturous Iran talks move into top gear in battle of wills

UN Security Council keeps Libya arms embargo in place

Saudi-led airstrikes target arms depots in Yemen capital

Death toll from hotel attack rises as fighting continues in Somalia

Turkish parliament passes security bill after long debate

Turkey army chief of staff visits historic tomb inside Syria

Saudi-led coalition keeps up raids against Yemen rebels

Assad says open to dialogue with US

US backs Saudi-led intervention in Yemen

Heavy Saudi raids force Sanaa residents to flee

Israeli Arab MP walks for Bedouins

Gulf stocks regain ground after early losses over Yemen

Kerry presses Iran on nuclear deal before deadline

Somali pirates seize Iranian fishing vessel

Borse Dubai sells big stake in London Stock Exchange

Can Arabs form joint military force?

Libya rivals discuss UN-backed peace proposals

French President to join 'anti-terror' march in Tunis

Sisi underscores Egypt’s rights to tap Nile water

US-led coalition aircraft bomb Tikrit

Saudi warplanes strike Yemen rebels in Sanaa

Netanyahu to form Israel new government after shock victory

Turkey military responds to Kurdish attacks in southeast

Leaders see horror of air crash as investigators step up probe

Fistfight in Iraqi Kurdish parliament

Syria rebels seize ancient town of Busra Sham

UN reveals plethora of abuses against activists in Libya

IS attack kills 5 militia fighters in Libya city of Sirte

Yemen President ‘in safety’ as rebel forces advance

US considering launching air strikes on Tikrit

Yemen Huthis seizes key airbase near Aden

'Feminist' policy costing dear to Sweden

Obama says row with Netanyahu ‘substantive’

Tunisia honours victims of deadly attack on national museum

Roadside bomb kills two Egypt soldiers in restive Sinai

‘Islamic State’ woos Syria children with money: More than 400 recruited in 2015 alone