Having now read the whole thing

I've finally had a chance to read the entirety of President Obama's speech on America's relationship to the worldwide Muslim community. I must say, I think that it was quite remarkable, if not for the content per se, then for the context in which it was delivered. While I am not such a fool as to think that one speech will blow away the accumulated distrust and enmity that have developed between the United States and many Muslim-majority nations, I do think the speech was an important, and effective, first step.

Some highlights (transcript via the Times):
The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.
This line hasn't seemed to draw much attention, but I was struck by it. In all honesty, I hadn't even considered how much of an impact the Cold War had had on the many Muslim-majority countries that were treated as proxies, and of the lasting resentments that these policies might have created. I thought the inclusion of that history in the speech was both honest and savvy.
I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims."


And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.
I was also struck by how deftly Obama linked America's historic relationship with Islamic culture and current American political reality. That Muslim-majority nations have had diplomatic relations with America since its founding, and that there is (admittedly tiny) Muslim representation in the House highlights the ongoing overlap between societies.
Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.
An utterly indispensable thing to say. Given the very history of colonialism and Cold War brinkmanship Obama alluded to, it is vital that we continue to distance ourselves from anything that would resemble foreign policy atavism, particularly while making the case for a continued military presence in Afghanistan.
And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.
Let's hope the Senate cooperates with that last goal. Regardless, it's important to try to turn a page on the mistakes of the last administration, and to remind the world that the current one is different in concrete ways.
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.


To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.
I do not want to imply that Obama's criticism of Israel in the intervening paragraphs from the bits I quote above are in any way less important or valid that his criticisms of anto-Semitism and Hamas. Far from it. But I think it is remarkable that Obama unequivocally called for the recognition of Israel's right to exist in Cairo, in an address to a world-wide Muslim audience.
At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.
Indeed they must. Let us hope that Obama's policy in this matter is not undermined.
The fourth issue that I will address is democracy.


This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
Again, that he said this in Mubarak's Egypt is quite striking.
Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.
A nice little jab at France. Glad to know I'm not the only one that thought their appalling ban on religious attire in schools was little more than thinly-veiled anti-Muslim nationalist ugliness.
I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.
Given that, of the two women I have gotten to know best who cover their hair, one used to put up with my crap as one of my senior residents and the other is well on her way to a ridiculously successful academic legal career, I would say that Obama makes a lovely point about both religious freedom and the imperative to educate women within every society.
Now let me be clear: issues of women's equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead.
Yes, indeedy. Unlike certain other countries I could name.
We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.

The Holy Koran tells us, "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God's peace be upon you.
What a beautiful, hopeful and respectful conclusion to a brilliant speech, which deserves to be read in its entirety. I share with Andrew a belief that no other American leader could have delivered this speech at this time. I hope that it heralds the dawn of a new and better, if not easier, era in American foreign policy.

1 comment:

  1. I have a slightly different take as you might have guessed. Mr. Obama gives a pretty speech, no doubt. He also manages to be elusive and slippery at critical points (which has its place in diplomacy), and he includes enough criticism of both sides to give the illusion of "balance."

    I'll just give two points for flavor. First, blaming the settlements for the lack of a Palestinian Arab peace agreement is disingenuous at best. We have seen what happens when settlements are dismantled and a region made Judenrein (as per the Palestinian Arab demand); Israel withdrew from Gaza. Is there peace, or even the likelihood of peace? No. If anything, Gaza is more violent than Judea and Samaria. And the greehouses of the Jewish settlements, bought from settlers and given to the Palestinian Arabs? The Palestinian Arabs wasted no time in blowing them to pieces, thus tossing away tens of millions in infrastructure and hundreds of jobs.

    Second, as far as Mr. Obama's view that it is his responsibility to fight "negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear" I am utterly amazed. The job of the POTUS is not to defend any religion, period. This is simply standard Obama, telling one group what he thinks they want to hear, without thinking about the larger picture, without having a consistent political philosophy.

    Indeed, Mr. Obama has failed to deliver on his silver-tongued orations past (as you well know) because he really has AFAICT no underlying philosophy of governing other than

    a. more money to Friends of Barack
    b. more power to Friends of Barack
    c. Barack must be seen as a towering intellectual figure.

    I'm under no illusions that he really means any of this, other than the parts that result in FoB getting more money and power, and His Barackness getting his daily tonguebath from the adoring Press. When he shuts GITMO, when he ends rendition, when he no longer orders UAVs to "airraid villages and kill civilians", when he ends DADT, when taxes are reduced for 95% of Americans -- then I'll believe what he says about foreign policy.