Obamas balm

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

Obama on a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza.-LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Obama on a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza.-LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

PRESIDENT Barack Hussein Obamas much-awaited speech to the Muslim world was yet another illustration of his oratorical skills. Seeking to undo the damage inflicted on the psyche of the 1.5 billion Muslims during the eight years of the neoconservative Bush presidency, Obama issued a clarion call for a new beginning with the Islamic world. He opened his speech at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4 by saying that he was carrying the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu alaykum. This was the first time that an American President invoked an Islamic greeting.

Addressing a select audience, which even had a sprinkling of opposition leaders from the Muslim Brothers and other parties, Obama laid out a vision for a new U.S. partnership with the Islamic world that would end the cycle of suspicion and discord. He said that the relationship he envisaged would be one based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Obama, whose father was a Muslim, went on to say that the interests of the U.S. and the Islamic world did overlap on common principles such as justice and dignity of all human beings.

Obama recounted civilisations debt to Islam and the Muslim communities contribution to the development of culture and the sciences. A significant line in his speech read: Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group over the other will inevitably fail. He did not criticise the mainstream Islamist movements in his speech; he focussed solely on the threat posed by Al Qaeda. In contrast, the President said Hamas had a role in unifying Palestinian society. Ahmad Yousuf, the adviser to the Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza, was fulsome in his praise of Obamas speech, calling it a Martin Luther King-like speech.

Obama acknowledged that a single speech would not eradicate years of distrust, nor would it resolve all the complex questions that have brought us to this point. He said that before moving ahead, both sides would have to deal with the impact of violent extremism in all its forms.

The President recalled what he had said in Ankara in April: America is not and never will be at war with Islam. But he warned that the U.S. would never let its guard down in relentlessly confronting violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our society.

Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, seemed to suggest that it was only a violent minority that gave the peaceful Muslim majority a bad name. He warned that the sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.

Obama acknowledged that one of the major issues that had alienated the Islamic world from the U.S. was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While maintaining that Americas strong bonds with Israel were unbreakable, he said it was undeniable that the Palestinian people had suffered in their quest for a homeland. The only resolution is for the aspirations of both to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. He stressed that this goal was in everybodys interest, Israels, Palestines and Americas. Obama sought to justify Israels right to exist by invoking the holocaust while ignoring the fact that the state of Israel was created by forcing out the original inhabitants Palestinians from the land.

Obama called on the Palestinians to renounce violence and the Israelis to halt their settlement activities and allow the Palestinians to live a normal life. The President should have known that Palestinians had in recent years launched violent attacks only in retaliation to Israeli aggression and assassinations. The last suicide attack inside Israel was in 2004.

Obama told the Palestinians to follow the examples of the non-violent struggles of the African-American minority in the U.S. and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. The ANCs struggle was an armed liberation struggle, a fact the President chose to forget. He also glossed over the horrific attacks by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, which claimed the lives of thousands of civilians.

The Hamas leadership, while expressing satisfaction that Obamas speech rejected the clash of civilisations theory, was unhappy with his call to the organisation to end violence unconditionally, accept past agreements and recognise Israel. The speech was low on specifics about ending the Arab-Israeli conflict but the fact that Obama talked about the Palestinians 60 years of pain of dislocation and the wait in refugee camps was a much-needed balm. Obama emphasised that the U.S. policies would be aligned with those who pursue peace. Many Palestinians have chosen to interpret this as a rap on the knuckles for the Israeli government for their three-week onslaught on Gaza.

But the fact remains that Obama, if his recent statements are any indication, remains opposed to the right of return for Palestinian refugees. During his successful run for the presidency, he even supported Israels claim of Jerusalem as its capital. The proposed state for Palestinians consists of Israeli settlements pockmarked with roads and walls. The people of Gaza still live in an open-air prison, blockaded by the U.S.-sponsored Israel.

Obama reiterated his pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by next year and from the entire country by 2012. He, however, had no words of sympathy for the hundreds of Iraqis killed by the occupation forces. Instead, he talked about the enormous trauma the U.S. experienced following the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on the country in which 3,000 people were killed. He described the American occupation of Afghanistan as a necessity. Obama said that the American forces would stay in the country until the violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan stopped targeting Americans. Insisting that America was not interested in stationing its troops permanently in Afghanistan or seeking military bases there, he said military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an audio tape released on the day Obama landed in Egypt, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden accused the American President of following the policies of his predecessor in antagonising Muslims. Osama said Obama had fanned Muslim hatred towards the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to send its military into the Swat valley.

Observers of the West Asian scene were quick to notice that Obama did not use the word terror or terrorism in his speech, fully aware of what these words now connote in the Muslim world. Nor did he talk of spreading democracy in the Arab world, which was viewed as another way of effecting regime changes in the region. Elections alone do not make true democracy, he said, and instead stressed the importance of minority rights, the rule of law, and basic freedoms.

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on the other, Obama said. Interestingly, in his lengthy speech, Obama did not mention the name of his host, President Hosni Mubarak, even once.

Obama is the first American President to talk about the harmful impact of imperialism on the region. He admitted that the U.S. was involved in effecting the regime change in Iran in 1953. The United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government, he said. On the U.S. relations with Iran, Obama said that his administration was willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point.

Obama said that America was determined to prevent a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. The President, speaking on the need for a nuclear-arms-free world, said that any nation, including Iran, should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He also said that he understood those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. Israel is the only country in the region that has amassed an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Irans Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was dismissive of the Obama speech, saying that Muslims would continue to hate America. He was critical of the U.S. and its allies for asserting that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons. Khamenei stressed that beautiful speeches could not remove the hatred Muslims felt towards the U.S. He said these feelings were exacerbated by the aggressive actions of America in the Muslim world. Many observers are of the view that Obamas speech was an attempt to make the Muslim world accept American aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As an American columnist observed, it took Obama 100 days to create two million Pakistani refugees, while it took Israel 30 years to create 3.5 million Palestinian refugees.

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