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.