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» 06/05/2009
Fr. Samir: Obama on Islam pleases, but there are some lies and silences
by Samir Khalil Samir
An analysis of the US President’s speech by an expert on Islam and the Arab world. In general there is a lot of honesty and justified mea culpa. But there is also too much rhetoric on Islam’s contributions; historical falsehoods on the Cordoba Caliphate and the birth of Israel; ambiguity on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; religious freedom is more than tolerance; forgetfulness on the everyday rights of women. The Pope said more in the Middle East.

Beirut (AsiaNews) –The wide ranging discourse delivered by Barack Obama yesterday in the University of Cairo is a proposal to move on from a conflict of civilisations to a new and prosperous era in relations between the West and Islam, or rather, the United States and Islam.

In the first part he seeks to placate Muslims, speaking in first person of his experience and the American experience.  He is also briefly critical of the American conduct in Iraq.  All of this serves to create an atmosphere of dialogue and openness.  It is a normal tactic to ensure that your public is listening.  In the second part he lists six points on which the United States and Muslim world must collaborate.

The speech is essentially the speech of a man of politics, who belongs to the most powerful nation on earth and the issues are addressed on a political level by a man who knows his responsibilities.

In many aspects, Obama’s speech is very honest.  For example, in dealing with violent extremism, he insists on it not being identified with Islam, even if he says there are Muslims who use violence.  We know that the extremists are a minority, but they are not acceptable.

On Afghanistan and Iraq he speaks in a very balanced way, responding to the Islamic world’s criticism of America.  He even quotes Thomas Jefferson when he says: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be”. He even confesses that the event sin Iraq have forced America to understand that diplomatic solutions are always better than war.

His reading of the history of the conflict between the West and Islam is somewhat manipulated, perhaps to make it acceptable to Muslims.  When for example, he speaks of the Islam of Al Azhar, in relation to its supposed contribution to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment; he seems to go a little too far for me, even if it is likeable.

He also lists the contributions made by Islamic culture to the civilisations of the world: algebra, philosophy etc… And I approve of this: it is perhaps exaggerated, but it aims to tell Muslims to be proud of this contribution to world culture.  Obama also insists on not remaining fixed on the past but to move on, beyond the conflicts, to collaboration, urging optimism and courage.

He quotes twice from the Koran in his speech, as well as the Talmud and the Gospel. But he ends with a quote from St Paul (“the peace of God be with you”).  This shows the courage of the man who does not hide his identity: he says he is a Christian and that he had a Muslim father, well aware of the many controversies in the Muslim world regarding conversions.  He underlines the need for honesty in dialogue and what is said in private must also be said in public, adding that his speech aims to find common foundations in truth.

The last part is full of strong language: don not be held back by the past; move on towards the future; his invitation to young people of all faiths: this is very American, putting the responsibility of this duty to all, young and old, looking at our efforts with optimism.

Even when he proposes American collaboration in investments in culture, development, and student exchanges, he reveals that he is aware of the United States power, but he is asking for the partnership of the Muslim world anyway.

The atmosphere of the speech therefore, is one of global collaboration, where everyone has to make an effort, with respect for each other and without arrogance.

Ambiguity on Israel, Palestine and the settlements

Obama lists 6 themes on which collaboration is urgently needed: violent extremism; Israel, Palestine and the Arab World; nuclear arms (in which he targets Iran); democracy; religious freedom; and women’s’ rights.

The first 3 points are aspects of International politics; the remaining 3 are on human rights issues.  It is clear that he focuses on the most important issues.

1. Regarding extremism, Obama sought to avoid identifying violence with Islam.  He even discreetly admits faults in the American errors in Iraq, to indicate in the end that extremist violence is a “common enemy”.

2. The Israeli-Palestinian problem presents some limitations.  When he explained that the bonds between the USA and Israel are “indestructible”, he pronounced harsh words for the Muslim Wold.  Barack did so to reassure Israel, demonstrating that these bonds are based on historical and cultural ties and on the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland…rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied”. All of this is true.  But when he compares the Jews and Palestinians who have suffered for a “homeland”, he commits an error: the Jews did not suffer because of the Palestinians or Muslims, but in Europe because of the West.  Instead the Palestinians suffer because of the Israelis and the Western World.  Another ambiguous element concerns his placing on the same scale the legitimate desire of Palestinians and Jews to have a homeland in the Middle East.  The legitimate desire of Jews in Europe was to live in peace where they were, not to have a homeland in the Middle East at all costs.  This ambiguity is present in many in the West.  But it also has to be said that now, Israel is in the Middle East and that we must live together, what remains important is that history is not manipulated.

Another ambiguous element is the issue of settlements which Barak Obama says “must be stopped”. But it is not clear whether their will be more settlements in the future of if existing settlements will be dismantled, and the lands sequestered by the Israeli colonies from the Palestinian people returned. The United States has to go beyond generic statements and carry forward the policy of the “two States”, with specific reference to “being within the borders assigned by the United Nations”.  If this does not happen, then there will be no peace.  I think that this is the weak point of Obama’s speech.  But at the same time it is true that he really could not add anything more, considering he American politics of the last 60 years! The fact he says two states are necessary is already a small step forward.

3. The 3rd emergency alludes to Iran and its nuclear program.  It’s nice to hear him say that we must work so that no state has nuclear arms.  Only in this way will his criticisms of Iran and North Korea have meaning.  This is how he really differs from his predecessor, who condemned these countries while he claimed the right and need for the US to posses nuclear weapons.

Religious freedom is more than mere tolerance

The second part deals with various aspects of human rights

4. Regarding democracy, he is conscious of the inequality between various nations, but he lists the needs that are the basis of democracy: the freedom to express one’s own ideas, trust in the administration of justice; etc… And here he even criticises the American policy in Iraq that wanted to impose democracy by force.  Instead Obama says: “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”.

5. The fifth point is religious freedom. Here Obama goes a little beyond historic truth and uses mythical concepts to justify his position.  He maintains that Islam has always been a tolerant religion.  But this is ambiguous: religious freedom is not only a question of tolerance.  Tolerance means allowing others to exist, it does not mean freedom of speech, freedom to preach or convert.  Then he falls into the trap of myths when he uses the Caliphate of Andalusia and Cordoba a san example of this tolerance, placing it in direct contrast to the Inquisition.  This is completely exaggerated myth.  First of all the Inquisition was historically after the caliphate, but the affirmation is also wrong in its contents.  There was a lot of persecution under the Andalusia Caliphate, of Christians, Jews and even Muslims: Averroè was forced to flee from Cordoba; the same fate for the Hebrew Philosopher Maimonide. He then points to Indonesia where he lived during his childhood.  And here there is little to argue about.  However the Indonesia of today is less tolerant than it was in the past.  Despite this he seems conscious of the fact that steps need to be taken to ensure reciprocal respect.  Among situations of difficulty he lists (a little out of place) the Maronites in Lebanon and (with no small measure of courage given that he is in Egypt) the Copts in Egypt.  Finally he also cites conflicts between Sunni and Shiites to show that tolerance is needed also among Muslims themselves and not only with Christians.

He then gives some examples of tolerance “American” style.  He speaks for example of the zakat, the juridical religious tax in support of other Muslims.  But this is a private fact that no-one can impede, and yet he points to it as an important sign of tolerance.  Twice or three times he calls in cause the issue of the veil and women’s’ clothing, to say that they have the right to dress as they desire, but this argument seems more aimed at satisfying Muslims, because it is not real issue of religious freedom.  Instead the right to believe or not to believe, to be homosexual or not, to convert to another religion, are not addressed.  He points to Saudi Arabia as an example of collaboration between religions, but says nothing of the lack of religious freedom in that country.

6. The last point made is on women’s rights.  An here he also cites blindingly obvious examples such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, where some women have been political leaders, but without ever touching on the everyday problems in the life of women in these countries, full of humiliation and marginalisation.

Obama’s journey and that of the Pope

In conclusion, Obama insists on human progress, education and integration of progress and tradition.  In fact one of the main reasons of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world is this idea of progress and so he invites the creation of a new world, quoting the examples he has made: no more extremism; US soldiers at home; Israelis and Palestinians living in peace; without the threat of nuclear war, etc….

In a very American way he pusher everyone to be courageous and to take a step towards something new.

The speech is a good one; here and there one too many concessions to the Muslim world, but for a man of politics it is, in my opinion, positive. He is trying to make it known that America wants to change its attitude to the world of Islam.

Comparing his message to that of the Pope during his trip to the Holy Land, it seems to me, that with regards the Palestinians, the pope was far less ambiguous.  Both defended the right of Israel to exist, both condemned the violence, but Benedict XVI spoke in precise terms of the Two States; he even said that the security barrier is unacceptable and that Jerusalem has to be the capital of both States.  Obama instead only spoke of Jerusalem as the “spiritual capital” of the three Abrahamic religions.

The pope also spoke of the “indestructible bonds” between Jews and Christians, but did not justify these bonds with a weak historic motivation.

It must also be said that the pope’s situation was far more delicate, because Benedict XVI went into the eye of the storm, among the Israelis and Palestinians.  Instead this speech by Obama only served to please Islam.

In some way this speech aimed to extend American peace.  Which is no bad thing, as long as we take into account Obama’s own reservations: everything must proceed in partnership and not under dominion.  In any case, the change compared to Bush is clear: both are conscious of the role of the USA in the world, but what Obama says seems more correct.


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