There are times I am struck by how fortunate we are that Barack Obama was elected President on November 4th, 2008. This is one of those times. Having spent the last 30 years of my life working to bridge the divide between the US and the Arab World, I became increasingly concerned, during the past 8 years, as I watched that divide grow into what I feared might develop into an unbridgeable chasm. The damage done by the alternately reckless and neglectful policies of the last Administration had taken an enormous toll.
How could we change direction? Watching the President addressing the Muslim world from a podium at the University of Cairo provided an answer.
One can only marvel at the sweep of history that brought this man to that place at this moment. I speak here not only of his personal narrative, so quintessentially American, but of his determination to face down overwhelming odds in making this brave effort to restore America’s image, reclaim our values and restore frayed relationships.
President Obama’s speech covered a great deal of ground–evidence of how many problems we must solve in order to heal the deep divide.
It was, by any measure, a “big speech”. More like a “State of the Union” address than the Philadelphia “Race speech” or his remarks on abortion at Notre Dame. It was an agenda-setter, a menu designed to address a wide range of problems across a broad region.
The President opened by recognizing Islam’s contributions to the world and the role the Muslim community has played in America. And then he shifted to address the many sources of tension that have plagued our relations. He spoke with firmness and clarity of his resolve to continue to confront extremism, end the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo and ban torture. He then turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, displaying remarkable sensitivity to the histories of both peoples. And if that wasn’t enough, he addressed the need for a nuclear free Middle East, the importance of the rights of women in the region, spoke of democracy, the need for religious pluralism and laid out a partnership agenda for economic development.
More striking than the range of issues covered was how little the President needed to say in order to delight some, while angering others. An early mentor, Daniel Berrigan, once noted that “when saying two plus two equals four becomes an act of courage, you know you’re in trouble.” And so when President Obama respectfully quoted from the Qur’an or used terms like “dislocated” (to refer to the Palestinian Diaspora), “intolerable” (to describe the conditions of occupation) or “Palestine” (to refer to the future state) and this elicited cheers from friends and scorn from opponents, we know we are in trouble. Trouble, because of the self-imposed constraints that define what is acceptable in American political discourse, and trouble, because, as Arabs, have come to expect so little.
The day of the speech, I appeared on a number of TV shows debating the President’s speech with those who had a stake in defending the failures of the past, or those who, for reasons of partisan politics, sought to pick around the edges of his speech looking for some advantage. Some were troubled by the respect he showed to Islam and upbraided him for the sympathy he displayed with the plight of Palestinians. Some expressed concern that Obama wasn’t tough enough. I asked: did they really want him to deliver another “axis of evil” speech? Others waxed indignant at the President’s criticism of torture or his attempt to change our discourse with Muslims by using the terms “violent extremism” instead of their preferred “Muslim terrorists”. Still others expressed outrage at what they termed his “moral equivalency”. In all of their criticisms, however, they missed the point that this President wasn’t posturing, talking “at” Muslims, he was working to engage us in a conversation with them.
All of these critics missed the central contribution made by Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo –” and that was to create more “open space” in our discussion of Arab and Muslim issues. This was the President’s challenge to Americans. Unlike his predecessor, he understands that if we are to repair the divide, then Americans must also change. As we seek to have Muslims understand us, it is equally important that we learn more about Islam, its contributions to our collective history, our relationships with the many parts of the Muslim world.
All of this, as I noted at the outset, made me so thankful that we have Barack Obama in the White House, at this critical juncture in our history. No one else could have delivered that speech in Cairo, and no one else would have had the vision or the courage to create the space that will allow more political leaders to be able to affirm that “two plus two is four.”