On June 4, 2009, about eight months after he took office for his first term, President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt.
His remarks were titled “A New Beginning” and were delivered from the stage of the University of Cairo, at the joint invitation of the Universities of Cairo and Al-Azhar.
The title aptly reflected the speech’s contents, and I must confess that I was quite enthused that it represented what I felt was a significant departure from previous U.S. foreign policy on issues that concern the Muslim world.
I know that politics are controversial and that by expressing anything positive about any U.S. president, I am automatically running a 50 percent chance of alienating some U.S. readers.
But please understand that although I do have an opinion on Obama’s presidency generally, the current post is only an exploration of his potential foreign policy.
Selfishly, that is the dimension of the U.S. presidency that most affects us in the Middle East.
Shortly after the Cairo speech, I decided to visit a few of my Muslim friends, mainly scholars and clerics, to get a sense of what they made of it.
One of them, a Shiite cleric with a natural anti-American leaning, remarked not without some humor that he would wait until he saw something on the ground before performing a dance!
The message was clear: the promise of “a new beginning” was a familiar chorus that remained theoretical, and he was obviously not holding his breath.
However, my friend’s reflection also contained the real possibility of a new beginning in his perception of the United States if Obama were to show something palpable to match his promises. That in itself gave me hope.
What was it in that batch of promises made nearly four years ago – unfulfilled as we now know – that offered my friend the possibility of hope?
As Obama walks into his second term, it is worth reviewing briefly the seven issues of U.S. relations with the Muslim world that he addressed. I will do so by identifying right away where I see him diverging from the traditional path.
I will also focus on his recurring treatment of thorny topics through the courageous practice of what I would call “politics of humility,” at the risk of being perceived as weak.
It seems to me that as followers of Jesus, there is much for us to learn in this remarkable approach.
- On “violent extremism in all of its forms,” Obama demonstrated a keen awareness of Islam’s multidimensional complexity, affirming the importance to unite against violence since the victims of violence are also Muslims. Against the wearying politics of “exceptionalism,” Obama steered the course of a politics of humility, recognizing for instance the mistakes of the Iraq War.
- On “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world,” Obama adopted an unusual position that recognized the legitimacy of the dual narrative on the conflict, insisting on the necessity of mutually acknowledging the pain both of Israelis and Palestinians.
- On “our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons,” Obama astonishingly began by recognizing the negative role that the United States had played in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mosaddeq in 1953 in pursuit of its own interests during the Cold War. By initiating this sort of confession, Obama was then inviting Iran to consider a fresh start in its relations with the United States. On the nuclear issue, Obama also recognized the double standard that had been applied by his own country in its tolerance of Israel’s nuclear power while rejecting Iran’s right to it.
- On “democracy,” Obama confessed that the United States had often tried to impose its own political wishes on other nations, sometimes even interfering in the results of the electoral process in the name of democracy. In the same breath, however, he reaffirmed the importance for people to govern themselves rather than be ruled by autocrats that disrespect and abuse their own people.
- On “religious freedom,” Obama did not shy away from pointing the finger at Islam’s recurring problem in its treatment of minorities. But he earned the right to do so by first acknowledging the periods of history when Islam practiced admirable tolerance toward minorities, and by pointing out some of Christianity’s own historical sins. In addition, he referred to various situations in the contemporary world where Muslims are prevented from fully practicing some of their religious obligations, whether in the name of “security” (such as the restrictions that certain U.S. financial regulations impose on the free practice of Islamic almsgiving, or Zakât), or in the name of secularism (such as with the restrictions on wearing the veil in France).
- On “women’s rights,” Obama demonstrated a sharp understanding of the complexity of the issue. He outright distanced himself from stereotyping the significance of the veil, while affirming the fundamental right of Muslim girls to a proper education and freedom to choose the role they wish to play in their societies. Once more, Obama balanced this criticism by recognizing the West’s ongoing struggle to achieve complete equality for women in all spheres of life, including in the United States.
- And finally, on “economic development and opportunity,” Obama stressed the irresistible movement toward technological advance globally while acknowledging the reality of the dangers and fears associated with change and innovation. He also reaffirmed the U.S commitment to partnering with Muslim nations to support development and technological advancement.
I am told by my U.S. friends that a president in his second term is more bold and principled than in his first. The absence of the looming possibility of a re-election makes him less driven by lobby groups and more by his own principles.
Obama’s Cairo speech was a powerful, bold and principled speech that would have offered new promise for East-West relations. Dare we hope that this second term might deliver something worth dancing for?
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. This column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.