The Wrong Speech
President Obama likes to position himself as an intermediary, explaining two conflicting parties each to the other. He did so in his race speech in Philadelphia, he did so when he spoke about abortion at Notre Dame.
In Cairo, he took a similar position between the United States and the Islamic world. He urged Americans to take a positive view of Islam, and urged Muslims to take a positive view of the United States.
But whereas in Philadelphia and Notre Dame Obama was explaining two groups of Americans to each other, in Cairo he exhibited the amazing spectacle of an American President taking an equidistant position between the country he leads and its detractors and enemies. It is as if he saw himself as a judge in some legal dispute. But the job to which he was elected was not that of impartial judge, but that of leader and champion of the American nation.
The President said: “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
The same principle? Shouldn’t an American President feel an attachment to his own country above all? Shouldn’t misrepresentations aimed against that country energize him more?
And yet the tone of this speech suggested that if anything, such misrepresentations energize him less. Listen to this passage:
I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al-Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.
Well yes, they are facts. But they are also wrongs done on a massive scale to the United States by people acting in the name of Islam; wrongs condoned and excused by many in the Islamic world. When addressing grievances expressed by some Muslims, the President spoke understandingly.
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.
When speaking of the wrongs done to the United States by people acting in the name of Islam, however, the President mentioned nothing but the bare fact. He brought no emotion.
The President addressed the issue of the rights of women in the Islamic world. This is not a small issue, now that the Islamic world extends into Europe and America. Women in cities like London and Oslo face mounting threats not only to their freedom, but even to their physical safety, from men who deploy violence in the name of Islam. Nor is it only Muslim-born women at risk.
Now listen to the President:
I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal.
But it is not only “some in the West” who take this view! It is many Muslim-born women themselves, some of whom live in the West—but others of whom live in Muslim-majority countries. What is an American President doing taking sides on this internal question of Islamic practice?
What’s next—a speech in Jerusalem where the President says, “I reject the view of some in the West that chicken is not a ‘meat’ for kosher purposes”? A speech in Vatican City where the President endorses clerical celibacy?
Such interventions within Judaism and Christianity would obviously be unthinkable. Yet here is an American President intervening in an internal Muslim debate—on the more reactionary side!
The risk with this speech from the beginning was that the President would turn his back on the people in the Muslim world who most admire Western freedom—and who most need our support.
It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility toward any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.
These words are a slap at the government of France, which restricts the wearing of the hijab in schools. Yet polls show that a large majority of French teachers support the ban. Possibly these teachers are all bigots. But possibly also they understand that the hijab is frequently compelled upon girls—not only by their families but by the youth gangs that patrol French suburban neighbourhoods enforcing Islamic conformity.
Islam is not a monolith, we are often told. And that is true! The Islamic world is also the home of Dr. Younus Shaikh, a Pakistani scholar charged with blasphemy for stating that Islam did not exist before Muhammad.
The Islamic world is the home of the terrorized young gays of Iran. It is the home of Saudi women who want to drive. Did the President have anything to say to them?
No, no and no. For all the speech’s reasonable tone, it treats the more traditionalist elements within Islamic societies as the more authentic.
One of the most disturbing things about the Cairo speech is the persistent misrepresentation of history.
It is absurd to say that Islam has “always been a part of America’s story.”
It is worse than absurd to use a speech on Islam to apologize for America’s part in the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in Iran in 1953. Mossadeq was a secular nationalist, passionately opposed by Iran’s religious establishment. That establishment finally seized power for itself in 1979, and since then it has made a martyr of Mossadeq. For the United States to apologize to the present Iranian regime for the overthrow of Mossadeq would be a little like president Eisenhower apologizing to Joseph Stalin for the murder of Trotsky. Throughout the President’s speech, he takes pains to ratify the validity of complaints against the West. This no doubt strikes Obama as a harmless concession that opens the way to dialogue.
But it also cuts the ground out from under liberal Muslims and Arabs who reject a victimological approach to their history. Many of the worst elements in the Islamic world tell a one-sided history that denies the victimization of others and that throws all blame for frustrations upon outsiders. That version of history now commands the assent of an American President. And while he may regard his concessions as empty compliments, they will carry ominous meaning for many who struggle for the freedom to narrate a more honest history.