Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

Obama in Cairo
by Molly Fitzgerald

Barack Obama assumed the presidency with a reputation as a spellbinder, and it’s a safe guess that his ability to give inspiring speeches had something to do with his winning the Nobel Peace Prize just six months into his term.

If so, Exhibit A was the speech on U.S.-Muslim relations Obama delivered on June 4 at the University of Cairo, where he made a daring bid to capture the hearts of Muslims around the world. The speech—Obama’s boldest foreign policy move since taking office in January—received massive media coverage, both in advance and after it was delivered.

Hopes and fears in the United States were pitched high prior to the delivery. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, told on June 4 that “Obama’s successes in previous major addresses on subjects such as race serve only to raise expectation for this one.” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman reflected the conventional wisdom in a June 1 advance in which he called the speech “the ultimate test of autobiographical speechmaking.”

Obama himself joined in with some risk management. “Ultimately, it’s going to be actions and not words that determine that path, the progress from here on out,” he told the BBC’s North America correspondent Justin Webb a few days before traveling to Egypt. 

In Cairo, he grounded his remarks in a claim familiar from the 2008 presidential campaign: “The interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.” The trick was to make the claim plausible to a worldwide Muslim public a half-century into the Middle East crisis and seven years into U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“No speech can eradicate years of mistrust,” he elaborated. “But it did seem to me that this was an opportunity for us to get both sides to listen to each other a little bit more, and hopefully learn something about different cultures.”

He made clear that there were complexities to be appreciated on both sides. “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not a crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” he said.

The audience erupted in applause 30 times, captured by his quoting the Quran and highlighting his personal connection to Islam through his Kenyan father’s religious beliefs.

To be sure, that aspect of Obama’s life held some potential pitfalls. During the campaign, he had to deal almost endlessly with persistent fringe allegations that he was a secret Muslim. (See Ronald Kiener’s article, “Good for the Jews?” in the Spring 2008 Religion in the News.)

In a New York Times op-ed on May 12, Edward Luttwak contended that “most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity.” However, coverage after the speech contained little to suggest that Muslims were perturbed by Obama’s Christian identity—or by anything he said in the speech.

Indeed, the immediate global reaction ranged from rapturous to grudgingly appreciative, at least so far as the target audience was concerned.

On June 4, reported that “Egypt’s officials saw in Obama’s overtures to Islam and his usage of the Koran a sign of sincere respect and understanding of their religion while Muslim Brotherhood members said the speech highlighted values at the core of Islam’s message.” On June 7, Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iranian cleric, told the New York Times’ Rod Nordland that the speech had been “soft-spoken and eloquent,” even though he despised it.

Nordland went on to point out that the speech “meant different things to different people”—and what it meant in the Jewish world occasioned a more mixed reaction.

Writing on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog June 4, Brad Hirschfield, President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, looked hard for things to like. “President Obama’s long-awaited speech to the ‘Muslim world’ contained any number of things that troubled me. They trouble me as an American, as a supporter of peace in the Middle East, and as a supporter of Israel and even as a Jew.”

But, in the last analysis, Hirschfield overcame his qualms. “Call it great statesmanship, or call it a wonderful expression of the biblical concept of ‘reaching someone where they are,’ but the president’s speech in Cairo was spot on.”

On June 5, the Jerusalem Post reported less amenability on the part of right-wing Israelis—“shocked” at what they took to be Obama’s comparison of the plight of the Palestinians to the Holocaust. As Jeff Zeleny and Alan Cowell noted in the New York Times on June 4, “His words left many Palestinians and their Arab supporters jubilant but infuriated some Israelis and American backers of Israel because they saw the speech as elevating the Palestinians to equal status.”

 The Washington Post’s June 5 analysis of the speech caught the major themes of the coverage. “Using New Language, President Shows Understanding for Both Sides in Middle East,” ran the headline. Reporters Glenn Kessler and Jacqueline Salmon noted that there was “no mention of “terrorists” or “terrorism,” just “violent extremists.” There was a suggestion that Israeli settlements are illegitimate and an assertion that the Palestinians “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” There were frequent references to the “Holy Quran,” and echoes of other Islamic phrases.

Obama’s use of evenhandedness to establish U.S.-Muslim relations on a new footing left American conservatives cold. “Suddenly a young American seems to believe he can conjure up a ‘new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,’” Angelo M. Codevilla thundered in a National Review online symposium. “How could anyone imagine he possesses such a reset button? The answer only starts with Yuppie hubris.”

On the other hand, in a June 6 post on ‘On Faith,” Eboo Patel, executive director of Interfaith Youth Core—and a Muslim member of the president’s faith-based advisory council, said Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King. “Years ago King spoke of an interracial bridge, and a generation built them. Today Obama’s job is to speak of building interfaith bridges of service. It is our job to build them.”

All in all, there was considerable willingness to take Obama at his high flown word. “If Bush had said the same words, they would have sounded phony.” London Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland observed tartly. In fact, George Bush tried hard to avoid demonizing Islam in his public remarks. They sounded phony because his deeds—the unilateralist “war on terror”—didn’t seem to match the words.

The New York Times’ David Brooks compared the two presidential approaches in his June 5 column: “Obama was using this speech to show empathy and respect. He was asking people in different Muslim communities to give the U.S. a new look and a fresh hearing.” Bush, by contrast, “tried to promote democracy, even at the expense of stability. That proved unworkable.”

And so Barack Obama went to Cairo and, like St. Paul on his travels, sought to win over as many as possible by being all things to all people.

“It is President Obama’s defining rhetorical strategy,” Michael Gerson—chief Bush speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist—wrote on June 10. “For every contending thesis and antithesis—Islam vs. the West, Iran vs. America, Palestinians vs. Israel—he is the synthesis. All sides posses a shiny shard of the truth. Obama assembles the mosaic.”


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