Thursday, June 4, 2009

Keeping It Real While Feeling the Hope: A Response to President Barack Obama's Historic June 4, 2009 Speech at Cairo University

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey

Like many people who trade in the world of political commentary, I was prepared to write a response to President Obama's speech from the perspective of content analysis and criticism of not only what he communicated, but what, from my perspective, he left unsaid.

And I will still do that because there are areas of concern that many, including Muslim Americans have about the status of the relationship between the broader Islamic world, the Muslim American community and the policies and practices of the United States government.

That said, I believe all of us must acknowledge President Obama's remarks at Cairo University today as not only incisive and hopeful, but even prophetic.

A new paradigm for official US-Muslim world relations may well emerge as a result of President Obama's message. There is critical work (on all sides) to be done, and the task in front of us remains a daunting one.

But in at least three areas, President Obama's words signal a momentous and hopeful shift in the understanding that the new American government may have regarding its present and future relationship with Muslims and the Islamic world.

What are the things that make me hopeful? Here are four of them:

1. President Obama's speech advanced the understanding that Islam is not only a part of the heritage of global civilization, but part of the American historical and cultural mosaic as well. He mentioned, quite accurately, a number of important contributions that Muslims have made, and continue to make, for the advancement of American civil society, including that the fact that the Muslim American community numbers in excess of seven million, with 1,300 mosques nationwide and communities in every state. This fact alone refutes the characterization, by some that Islam is essentially alien to the American landscape, and that Muslim values and practices are incompatible with "American" culture.

Moreover, by further emphasizing the Muslim scientific, literary, and cultural underpinnings of Western and global civilization, President Obama's remarks served to advance a more enlightened understanding of Islamic and Qur'anic ethics and values as an integral part of the larger Abrahamic faith context.

2. There is recognition, for once, of both the oppression and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. It is true that President Obama spoke, quite accurately, of the continued U.S. commitment to the safety and security of the Jewish state, the acknowledgement of the historical suffering of the Jewish people, and the legitimate aspiration for a Jewish homeland. But his recognition of Palestinian displacement and the "intolerable" conditions that afflict the West Bank and Gaza civilian population represented a major shift in American understanding of human conditions rooted in historical Palestinian displacement since 1948. Also – and this was a major pronouncement – President Obama clearly stated the opposition, by his administration, to the continuation and expansion of (illegal) Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

3. President Obama spoke of support for a genuinely universal democratic ideal. There should be no doubt about the significance of a strong statement in support of real democracy articulated by a U.S. president standing on Egyptian soil. No doubt, the Egyptian people listening today, particularly the younger generation sitting in the Cairo University audience, understood that the anti-democratic and authoritarian character of the Mubarak regime, although not named, was one of the political systems in the majority Muslim world that President Obama had in mind when he spoke these words. True social progressives and supporters of popular democracy here in the United States should be encouraged by this implied criticism of past U.S. support for anti-democratic Muslim regimes, past and present, throughout the world.

4. President Obama spoke to the centrality of building economic opportunity in the Islamic world, and especially the linkage between broad societal advancement and the elevation of the human and civil rights of Muslim women. One major (and quite legitimate) criticism of majority-Muslim nations is the fact that they have not pushed strongly for the broad social (and economic) equality of women. The President challenged those nations – in a way that was neither hostile nor disrespectful – to see the education and advancement of women as central to the need for broader economic evolution within the Muslim world. And there was also his announcement of a new cooperative venture between the United States and the Organization of Islamic Conference (O.I.C.) to work for the eradication of Polio.

Of course, pundits and critics (from both the Left and Right) will undoubtedly focus on the things that were missing from the speech, and especially the lack of details related to the architecture of new American policy related to Muslim nations.

For example, would the U.S. government choose to deal with right-wing Israeli intransigence on the issue of West Bank settlements, and for that matter, the idea of a shared Jerusalem with equal human rights and access for Palestinians? How should the U.S. engage Israel on the issue of Israeli nuclear weapons? Should the huge American military policy-stick be transformed into something qualitatively different – say, a genuine Middle East 'Marshall Plan" constructed along the lines of the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Closer to home, though, there's the question of how the new Obama vision will translate to a shift in the reality of U.S. government assaults on Muslim charities, the continued reliance on arrest and torture rendition, and as we have witnessed in the legal issues related to Dr. Sami Al-Arian and so many others, the outrageous twisting of the American judicial system by prosecutors who have clearly evident prejudice against Muslims brought before the bar of justice.

We must also harbor our illusions about the ferocious, and still significant, political opposition aligned against President Obama and any progressive vision he may have for constructive engagement with Muslims, abroad or at home. He will face challenges from the pro-Israel lobby, Conservatives of all stripes, reactionaries and racists who are committed to American hegemony and the maintenance of old imperial relationships.

This speech was historically significant and deeply moving for many of the millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions of people in the global Muslim community who saw and heard it. And there is much that all of us must do to address unanswered questions and translate good intentions into tangible results.

We do live in the world of realpolitik, but we also live in a world of imagination, hope, and commitment to a common humanity.

I am thankful that, on the morning of June 4, 2009 at Egypt's Cairo University, Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, reminded us of the enduring reality of not only an American dream, but also a transformative one – clearly shared by many in the broader global community as well.

Transcript of President Barack Obama's June 4, 2009 Speech at Cairo University
VIDEO: Obama Calls for New Start Between U.S. and Muslims (AP)

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