President Barack Obama’s highly-anticipated speech today at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt struck a new tone in the discussion of America’s attitudes on Middle East relations. President Obama highly honored the role of Islam in American and world history and culture, citing Muslims’ contributions in many realms including poetry, architecture, and medicine. President Obama also spoke of his own childhood experiences in Muslim countries and quoted John Adams, who wrote of America’s lack of enmity with the fundamentals of Islam. While calling for increased understanding and tolerance of Islam in America and reiterating the legitimate place Muslims have in American society and culture, President Obama also called for a return of respect for Americans and a refusal on the part of Muslims to stereotype Americans.
President Obama’s Cairo speech referenced seven issues that have caused tension in America’s relations with Muslims in various parts of the world: violent extremism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the implications of nuclear technology (particularly in Iran), the promotion of democracy (particularly in Iraq), religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity.
I consider the major significance of Obama’s Cairo speech to be the high degree of respect and honor he expressed for Islam and the careful re-casting of the discourse concerning Muslim-American relations. Conspicuously absent was any reference to terrorists; President Obama referred to “violent extremists” instead. By unequivocally stating Islam’s value, peaceful ideals, and firm place in America, Obama functionally allied the average non-extremist Muslim with the average American while marginalizing violent extremists not only from America but from the Muslim world itself.
President Obama also used this speech at Cairo University to take the bold step of initiating an open dialogue on many tense issues. This speech carried with it a tone of transparency, humility, and co-operation that has been generally well-received with Middle Eastern Muslims who have heard it. The speech signaled a change in what has been perceived as an arrogant, individualistic stance on America’s part. The change is a welcome one, as is President Obama’s open and rhetorically brilliant discussion of such delicate topics as Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the relative merits of Israel and Palestine’s respective territorial claims. Though precisely crafted to have the desired effect, President Obama’s Cairo speech communicated a desire to dispense with manipulative re-interpretations of events and face difficulties with patience and honesty.
President Obama’s words were crafted and delivered with excellence. The one question lingering behind the positive reception is, will they be words only, or will President Obama back them up with action in coming days?