Friday, 5 June 2009

What Obama can and cannot say. Reactions to his Cairo speech.

The reactions to US President Barack Obama has left me somewhat perplexed and baffled. Perplexed as to what they (the liberal and Muslim commentators) expect of America and likewise of Islam, and baffled as to the sloppy moral equivalence, inaccuracy, and chronic myopia of the writers. That of course, is not to say that I found the speech profound, persuasive or likely to mark a new rapprochement in the West’s relationship with Islam, on the contrary if anything its likely to make the extremists more determined (As America does not have the stomach for a fight--what Bin Laden predicted) and the more moderate Muslims will remain defiantly sceptical.

I want you to pause over the sentence. “ West’s relationship with Islam”, Obama in his speech mentioned repeatedly the US relationship with Islam. This is curious terminology. Is it not suggestive, that, on one hand we have a President of a sovereign nation entering into dialogue with a single, monolithic and monotheist religion? (never mind all the factionalism and irredentist, ethno-chauvinist tribalism).

Indeed, During the cold war, no President ever talked of our relationship with Marxism or communism, or our need to reach out to the communist world. The fact that a democratically elected politician, a secularist, and a liberal would frame such a rapprochement in these terms is already begging the question of the gulf between Islam and America and of course the West. Obama’s speech is covertly giving credence to Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations model. That is, the Americans and Europeans identify themselves in political and national terms not religiously or in terms of race. Our values are ultimately democracy, Human rights, freedom and liberty. Muslims, do not see themselves in such terms, they define themselves religiously. For them no authority is greater than God, society is to be governed by Sharia law, and concern for fellow Muslims trumps concerns for other non Muslims. Needless to say, this, is a problem, and it will continue to be a problem for the demands the Muslim world will make on us, are not likely to be political, social or economic, but religious.

Obama’s speech was, though, politically excellent, but historically naive, factually inaccurate, and morally dubious. This is a strange feature of our discourse, especially when it comes to Islam. That is, the perfect acceptance of lying when it comes to this subject. Imagine the world reaction if Obama has of said this--

“On September 11, America was awakened to the fact that it is deeply hated and resented in the world. That this hatred and resentment is, in large measure irrational and unjustified. America woke up to the fact that there are millions of people in the world who think it is perfectly acceptable to use violence in the name of God. America was starkly awakened and reminded, that the end of history has not been reached, that secular democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience, the values that our forefathers fought so hard to achieve and maintain are not shared by most of the world. But, America, was not alone in being awakened, the rest of the world was awakened, awakened to witness the failure of Islam. Its failure to adapt to modernity, its failure to undergo an enlightenment, failure to progress, to commit itself to universal education, equality for women and respect and tolerance for non-Muslims. Islam, as it is practiced today, cannot continue, it is not only in America’s best interest but the world interest that Islam undergoes a radical process of change.”

Pie in the sky? Riots in the streets? Death to America? Probably, what I wrote above, is I believe, a honest assessment of our relationship with Islam, but to utter such words would entail political suicide and most likely a violent reaction. I am sceptical that Obama’s speech will do anything of substance. However, caveats aside, he was right to do this speech. Why? Because I think no other President and no other President for the long conceivable future has a hope of repairing America’s “tarnished” image in the world. So, while the make nice policy will quickly go down the drain, if America is attacked, the Israel-Palestine conflict rolls on, or Iran gets the bomb or another riot breaks out in the lands of Islam over a cartoon, a comic or a book. In short, we await the next terror attack, the next Muslim riot, and the next example of western liberal masochism as it censors or refuses to publish some author on the subject of Islam.

Now as to the commentators.

Consider what Ahdaf Soueif an Egyptian short story writer, novelist and political and cultural commentator had to say…

“There is a difference between believing that ultimately the interests of the inhabitants of the planet are genuinely interconnected and believing that the interests of the world can be made to seem compatible with America's. Obama has said that America should have not only the power but the moral standing to lead the world. Today we waited for him to demonstrate that moral standing and assume the leadership of the world. He did not; he remained the President of the United States.”

This is rich considering that state of Egyptian democracy and Human rights records. More ironic, is that this is the birthplace of Sayid Qutub the intellectual grandfather to Al Qaeda and birthplace to AQ number two Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Here is Ali Abunimah a Palestinian working in Washington for a 1 state solution to the problem with Israel.

On Palestinian dislocation and what Obama could not say.

“Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?”

Perhaps this, and I will be boringly unoriginal here--is simply not true.

And on the origins of Muslim terrorism.

“It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor's notion that "violent extremism" exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America's (and its proxies') exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the "enormous trauma" done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi's flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the "necessary" war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.”

A short counter to would be to remember what author of Terror and Liberalism Paul Berman and Islamic historian Bernard Lewis had to say on America relationship to Islam prior 9/11. That no other country has done more to help Muslims, from expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, helping, if belatedly, the Albanian Muslims and Muslims of Kosovo from the tyrant Milosevic. To all the aid we send Pakistan, the help we sent Afghanis over a clear example of imperialism--the Soviet invasion. never mind all the patience and time and money spent over the Israel-Palestine conflict, and all the navel gazing and masochism that followed the 9/11 attacks. But, Perhaps, as Sam Harris wryly notes this is just another contribution to “Muslim humiliation”.

It was not just Middle east writers who were expecting some kind of apology from Obama, Robert Fish was at it.

“There was no mention – during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran – of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for "shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus". But there was no mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza". Nor was there a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this.”

For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan – a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners – there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam – the "light of learning" in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism.”

Consider the more measured NYT columnist David Brooks who had this to say.

“In the Obama narrative, each side has been equally victimized by history, each side has legitimate grievances and each side has duties to perform. To construct this new Middle East narrative, Obama strung together some hard truths, historical distortions, eloquent appeals and strained moral equivalencies.”

“The president’s critics complained on Thursday about Obama’s distortions: The plight of the Palestinians is not really comparable to the plight of former slaves in the American South. The Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 was not really a glorious example of Muslim-American cooperation, but was a failed effort to use bribery to stop piracy.

“But this is diplomacy, not scholarship. Obama was using this speech to show empathy and respect. He was asking people in different Muslim communities to give the U.S. a new look and a fresh hearing. He was showing people in a region besotted with tiresome hysterics how to talk to one another with understanding and dignity.”

For once I seem to be in agreement with the Republicans and the conservatives (as to the truth of the speech not the political necessity) on this issue.

The Republican Jewish Coalition offered faint praise for the balance the group said Obama struck between the interests of Israel and the Palestinians.

"We urge President Obama to return to the policy of holding the security of Israel as a key American priority and requiring significant, concrete, and verifiable moves toward peace from the Palestinian side," executive director Matthew Brooks said in a statement.

Rachel Abrams wrote on the website of the conservative magazine Weekly Standard: "His greatest portion of criticism was reserved for the only nation in that otherwise benighted region that actually does believe in human rights and practices democracy, namely Israel."

Robert Spencer, a rightwing critic of Islam, said Obama had failed to confront Muslims with the words and actions of violent extremists like al-Qaida among his "platitudes and naivete".

"He assumes that it is his responsibility, and America's, to dispel mistrust that Muslims feel for the West," Spencer wrote.

Radio talk show host and former Reagan aide Hugh Hewitt, wrote that the speech was "deeply dishonest in its omissions".

The conservatives are right as to substance, but as I have said, there is no other President who has a chance of trying to overturn America’s image as an evil country.



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