Al-Ahram Weekly: Mixed reactions

A week after US President Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University, Gihan Shahine sifts through a web of applause, scepticism and cautious optimism

Many observers agreed last week with the verdict of the prominent Egyptian political analyst Fahmy Howeidy when he called US President Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University “very impressive” and revealing of the charismatic talents of a well-honed politician. Every time that Obama reaches out to Muslim countries with his messages of goodwill — and last Thursday those messages were laced with verses taken from the Holy Quran — hopes rise higher in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

However, these hopes may be in danger of giving way to frustration should people suspect that all they are getting is words, messages of reconciliation when nothing is happening on the ground. For there is a gathering consensus among Muslim nations worldwide that without a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Obama’s reiterated messages of goodwill will not achieve their target of forging a new beginning in the US’s strained relations with the Muslim and Arab worlds.

It was particularly in this vein that many expressed their disappointment that Obama’s “impressive rhetoric did not tell us anything about US policies towards pressing issues, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, other than what we already know,” as Howeidy put it. Similarly, Abdus Sattar Ghazali, executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective, concurred that Obama’s “well-crafted speech”, while being “rich with good gestures”, did not “amount to a breakaway from the American policies that have created the deep divide between the United States and the Muslim world since 9/11.”

Indeed, Obama’s speech perhaps unconsciously reflected a gap in perceptions about the source of the conflict between the US and Arab and Muslim nations. Whereas 80 per cent of Muslims have unfavourable views of the US largely because of its policies in the Middle East, according to Gallup research, Obama mentioned extremism as the first source of conflict. “Contrary to the perception in the Muslim world, for Obama the Middle East conflict is only the second source of tension between the US and the Muslim world,” Ghazali told Al-Ahram Weekly.

It was this part of Obama’s speech that bore the brunt of criticisms in the Arab world. Contrary to the Western media’s perspective, which sees Obama in the role of an “even-handed mediator”, many Arab and Muslim critics of Obama’s speech complained that it glossed over the suffering of the Palestinian people, while dwelling on the estimated six million victims of the Holocaust in Europe.

Not only, in Howeidy’s words, was “the number of Holocaust victims exaggerated” in the speech, but Obama, according to an equally disgruntled Ghazali, “did not mention the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza during its 22-day rampage last December and January, which was directed against an unarmed population.”

Comparing the struggle of the Palestinians with that of African-Americans, as Obama did in his speech, “was wrong because the African- Americans were fighting against discrimination and segregation in their own country, while the Palestinians are fighting against foreign occupiers,” points out Fadel Soliman, director of the Cairo-based Bridges Foundation, a body that specialises in introducing Islam to non-Muslims.

Moreover, Obama’s “mere mention” of the Palestinians’ right to the establishment of a Palestinian state “did not include details on where this land will be, or what its borders will be,” Howeidy said. Instead, Obama stressed the fact that Israel’s relationship with the US was “unbreakable”, which many people have explained as a way of preparing the Arabs to make concessions in any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

After all, Ghazali reasoned, the two-state solution offered by Obama has already been rejected by Israel. And in the meantime Obama has “indirectly urged the Arab states to recognise Israel’s ‘legitimacy’ and did not offer any criticism of Israel, except by saying that he was opposed to new Jewish settlements. But he did not oppose the existing settlements.” Ghazali said. “On another important Middle Eastern issue, that of Iran’s nuclear programme, Obama argued that his policies were directed towards preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. However, he did not talk about Israel’s nuclear arsenal.”

“It is the same old film, but with a change in direction,” Howeidy said, Ghazali agreeing that “while its tone was striking, the speech was very carefully worded, non-committal and lacking in substance.”

On a more positive note, for his part Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago), argued that “given that this was a speech, language comes high on the scale of factors that matter.” For Rehab, there is significance to be found in the fact that Obama used terminology that “bears the nuances that Muslims have long called for.”

This care about terminology, in Rehab’s view, included avoiding charged terminology, such as references to “Islamofascism” (Obama used the words, “violent extremism”), and acknowledging Palestine by name rather than talking about the Palestinian territories. Obama did not say the word “terrorism” once throughout his long speech.

“In avoiding misnomers like ‘Islamic extremism,’ Obama is signalling clearly that he disavows the forced coupling by Al-Qaeda and Islamophobes alike of Islam as a global faith and extremism as a political perversion,” Rehab told the Weekly. Rehab also said that in his use of the word Palestine, “Obama signalled that he is quite serious about a two- state solution in the future.”

For Soliman, though he is sceptical about aspects of Obama’s speech, those who are dissatisfied with it do not realise that he was not solely addressing Muslim nations. He was also using the occasion to address political lobbies in the United States and the Israelis. After all, Soliman said, “American politics will not change from a podium at Cairo University, but they could change from the American Congress.”

Other analysts agree that Obama’s message of reconciliation could be a way of indicating to the world that the new US president is getting the world ready for a new policy. And that, according to BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus, is already causing “a problem” for Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “The message has been repeated again and again; no settlement building — period,” Marcus wrote in an article that argued that the speech was a sign that “something has changed in Washington.”

The change is obvious for Soliman despite his reservations. “For the first time, an American president has admitted the historical mistakes of his country, and says clearly that no country in the world has the right to decide who should possess nuclear weapons and who should not; and speaks about his country as a country living among — and not above — other countries,” Soliman said.

Obama’s acknowledgement of the suffering of Palestinian refugees in the refugee camps in Gaza and neighbouring countries was also something new in an American president’s speech, in Soliman’s view, since the last time settlements has been mentioned was in former president G W Bush’s speech in April 2004, which told the Palestinians they could forget about returning to their ancestral homes.

“Obama also admitted that the overthrow of Mossadeq’s democratically elected government in Iran was wrong,” Soliman added. And this admission about something that took place in the early 1950s may be significant because it could imply a US admission that Ismail Haniyeh’s government in Gaza is also democratically elected. Obama has also not referred to Hamas as a “terrorist organisation”, as did his predecessor.

In Soliman’s view this kind of language is new, and it may be one that the world has not been used to hearing from an American president. It is in this context that Soliman applauded Obama’s speech for being “one of the most important speeches in modern history”, adding that “if the values in this speech are put into effect, then this president is giving a kiss of life to American civilisation, which previously was on the edge and about to collapse as a result of a lack of justice and morality.”

In the same vein, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa welcomed Obama’s speech as forging a new beginning in US relations with the Muslim world. However, like many other observers interviewed by the Weekly, Gomaa also hoped that Obama’s words would be followed by concrete actions, and he suggested ways of cooperating with the new US administration on issues including finding an even-handed solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that would allow the Palestinians to build an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. Gomaa also called for an end to the US occupation of Afghanistan and for a fight against stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam.

Indeed, Gomaa, like many Muslims who had felt deeply wronged and bullied over the past eight years, took heart from Obama’s discourse on Islam and Muslims, which represented a sharp departure from that of his predecessor. “Obama has opted for respect, humility and genuine appreciation of the other, while his predecessor opted for confrontation, suspicion and threats,” Rehab said.

The speech “was a far cry from the bullying extremist speeches and hate messages of president Bush”, said another observer, 35-year-old Jihan Ezzeddin. Like others interviewed, Ezzeddin does not necessarily expect rhetoric to change policies, “but it is such a relief to hear the president of the United States speaking with all that warmth and respect to Muslims and Islam.” Coptic dressmaker Lucy Michael was equally impressed. “The speech was marvellous. If everything he said is put into effect, then the world will be turned into paradise.”

Rehab explains this kind of positive reaction by saying that Arabs and Muslims are not inherently anti-American, but instead are sophisticated judges of discourse and policy. “Obama has earned flying colours for his discourse. But it remains to be seen what he will earn for his policies,” he concluded.

For his part, however, Howeidy remains pessimistic. He tends to dismiss Obama’s rhetoric about women’s rights and the hijab, as well as his quotations from the Holy Quran, as distractions from the main issues. After all, Howeidy said, “the hijab is not the source of the conflict between the United States and the Muslim world.”

“Obama moved people with his beautiful rhetoric and then said goodbye. That is what the visit was all about,” Howeidy concluded.

Obama leaves for Germany after speaking at Cairo University and visiting Al-Sultan Hassan Mosque

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