Monday, 13 July 2009

President Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University
President Obama Seeks a New Beginning
between the US and the Muslim World

Dr. Mozammel Haque

US President Barack Hussein Obama issued an ambitious seven-point manifesto for better ties with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims in his long-awaited, long promised historic address to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt, on Thursday, the 4th of June, 2009.

Speaking from the lectern at Cairo University in a speech also sponsored by Al-Azhar, one of the oldest centers of Islamic learning, President Obama spoke at Cairo University after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the second stop of a four-nation trip to the Middle East and Europe. The speech was the centrepiece of his journey.

While the 55-minute speech before a 3,500 invited audience of politicians, opposition leaders, scholars and human rights activists was billed as an effort by the President to soothe grievances of more than one billion Muslims across the world but choosing Cairo underscored his focus on the Middle East. Iran’s top diplomat in Egypt was also invited to attend and so the members of the semi-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group. The President covered the Middle East peace process, Iran, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in his speech.
On the same day, “The Israeli newspaper Haaretz printed a cartoon today of Mr Obama wearing Arab headdress, captioned "Barack Hussein Obama the Anti-Semitic Jew-hater", which was being posted up around Jewish settlements this morning ahead of his speech.” reported in The Times, London, on 4 June, 2009.

President Obama’s seven-point manifesto for better ties with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, includes, besides bridging gap between Islam and the West; first, confront violent extremism in all of its forms; second, the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world; third, rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons; fourth, democracy; fifth, religious freedom; sixth, women’s rights; and finally, economic development and opportunity.

But Obama dwelled most heavily on an Arab-Israeli peace. He spoke 6,000 words in Thursday’s speech, 1,000 about the Mideast conflict. “Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed,” he said.

New Beginning between US and Muslim World
In this part, I have mainly concentrated on his efforts to start a new beginning of relationships between the United States and the Muslim world. President Obama paid homage to the Islamic culture and civilizations, noted his Muslim roots, referred to America’s biography etc.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” said the US President Barack Hussein Obama in his long-awaited, long promised historic address to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt, on Thursday, the 4th of June, 2009.

Al-Azhar: a beacon of Islamic learning
In his historic speech at the Cairo University, President Obama said, “For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I am grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: Assalamu Alaikum.”
Relationship between Islam and the West
In a gesture to the Islamic world, Obama conceded at the beginning of his remarks that 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. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”

View Islam as hostile to America
President Obama mentioned, “The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.”
“This cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” said President Obama.

Quoting from the Qur’an
Obama’s ambitious speech also represented an opportunity to shape his own image in the eyes of Muslims. He quoted from the Qur’an, paid homage to the cultural and intellectual achievements of Muslims and noted his middle name and his father’s ties to the faith. Obama said, “As the Holy Qur’an tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best as I can.”

Noted his own biography
This frank discussion was punctuated and given credibility by Obama’s own biography, which he invoked to remind his audience that he does indeed understand the Muslim point of view. “I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the Adhan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith,” said President Obama.

Civilization’s debt to Islam
US President Barack Obama paid tribute to Islam’s influence in culture and civilization in his well-admired speech in Cairo. Obama said, “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like Al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”

Islam a part of America’s story
President Obama said, “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.’”

Contributions of American Muslims
President Obama also acknowledged, “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Qur’an that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.”

Freedom in America
The President pointed out that freedom in America is indivisible. “That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the Hijab, and to punish those who would deny it,” said Obama and also pointed out that Muslims there enjoy the same successes as non-Muslim Americans. He pointed out that US congressman Keith Ellison was sworn into office using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Holy Qur’an. He quoted the Qur’an and spoke of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Fight against negative stereotypes of Islam
Weaving his personal biography and America’s biography into his speech, Obama said, “So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” At the same time, he said the same principle must apply in reverse. “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

Dream of Opportunity exists for all
Obama also said, “Much has been made of the fact that an African-American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores – that includes nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today who enjoy incomes and education that are higher than average.”

Islam is a part of America
“So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity,” said the President.

America is not at war with Islam
Recalling his speech in Ankara, Turkey, earlier this year, Obama said, “In Ankara, I made clear that America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam.” Quoting the Holy Qur’an, Obama said, “The Holy Qur’an teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.”

I have mentioned all those areas which President Obama invoked to bridge the gap between the US and the Muslim world, particularly, Islam’s contribution to culture and civilizations, his Muslim roots, America’s biography, etc. I would like to draw the conclusion only on this part of his speech. Other issues which President Obama mentioned in his speech will be dealt with in the second part.

Writing on the President Obama’s speech at the Cairo University, Robert Fisk commented in The Independent, “It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday, as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish for – and we were all his audience. He praised Islam. He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved Christianity. And he admired America. Did we know that there were seven million Muslims in America, that there were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco was the first nation to recognise the United States and that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?” (Robert Fisk: Words that could heal wounds of centuries, in The Independent, London, 5 June 2009)

Commenting editorially The Independent observed, “As a President seeking to bridge the gulf that now yawns between the United States and the Islamic world, Mr Obama started out with three advantages. The first derived from his biography. His references to his Kenyan family, his childhood in Indonesia and his Chicago years all rang true. The second, not unconnected, is the cultural sensitivity that derives at least in part from that variegated background. When he quoted from the Koran – as he did several times and always to applause – the allusions flowed naturally, without the slightest affectation. And the third is his skill as a communicator, which encompasses not just his formidable rhetorical gifts, but his ability to explain a complex message in such a way that it will be heard and understood. These qualities, which played such a large part in winning him the presidency, were displayed to full effect again yesterday.” (Leading article: Mr. Obama makes his case for a historic rapprochement, The Independent, London, 5 June, 2009)

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