US President Barack Obama made headlines with his much anticipated speech to the Muslim world on 4 June 2009, called ‘A New Beginning.’ The stage was Cairo University. Choosing Egypt as the place to make his speech was significant because of its multi-faceted role as a leading Arab, Muslim, and African nation, and home of Al Azhar, which Obama called ‘a beacon of Islamic learning.’
People asked me what I thought of Obama’s speech, so here goes…
First, about Obama the man. Having stepped onto the national scene less than five years ago when he eloquently spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 which nominated Senator John Kerry as their candidate for President of the United States, Obama’s rise to power has been simply stunning. He is well-known as a great speaker, even an orator. In these challenging times of multiple meltdowns in the economy, swine flu pandemic and global hot spots, Obama’s words inspire hope. Obama, from all appearances, is providing an outstanding role model for African-Americans and all-Americans as a faithful husband to Michelle and loving father to daughters Sasha and Malia.
Upon observation, it is also becoming clear that Obama is highly intelligent, energetic multi-tasker. While focusing on the ailing US economy, he managed to make time to actively address global issues much earlier in his administration than that of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Obama is also eclectic: an ‘African-American’ President with a white mother, a Muslim father from Kenya and Muslim step-father from Indonesia, born in Hawaii but a resident of Chicago, a church-goer with Muslims connections, a sports fanatic with a ‘six pack’ who battles to quit cigarette-smoking, a man from relatively obscure background who catapulted to America’s highest office in record time. He seems supremely confident about taking up the challenge of the US presidency.
Obama’s critics say he is wildly driven by liberal, leftist, socialistic ideology. It is hard to say, one way or another, because the real Obama is still relatively unknown, despite his star power. It is simply too early to tell. But he is smart enough to try to portray himself (whether real or perceived) as a sensible, moderate man. Also, in a system like the United States, even card-carrying ideologues have been known to moderate their views due to the checks and balances found in the democratic system.
One thing we do need to recognize: Mr. Obama is relatively inexperienced, something Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden highlighted in last year’s election campaign. While Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was criticized for her ‘inexperience’ because she had been at the state house two years, then Senator Obama had only been in Washington three years. Governors at least have experience managing an entity, US senators and state senators (as Obama was), do not manage anything. Since there are no ‘Schools for Presidents,’ and we have to trust the democratic system that put Mr. Obama in office in a fair and square election, let’s accept that this intelligent man is savoring his on-the-job training.
The notion of engaging with the Muslim world is a prudent one. Islam encompasses one fifth of humanity with over 50 countries fitting the category of ‘Muslim-majority’ nations. Australia’s near neighbor, Indonesia, is the largest of all Muslim nations. From a diplomatic point-of-view, it is wise to understand and work with the Muslim nations. That said, the situation is a little more complex than meets the eye--more about that later.
Regarding the speech itself, Obama announced a ‘new beginning’ in US-Muslim relations that have been strained over the last few years for a variety of reasons: The Israel-Palestine conflict, blame for 9-11, and inroads of US/Western culture into traditional society. As mentioned, Obama has had no hesitation to pro-actively address foreign issues very early in his administration, particularly with the Muslim world. In a speech to the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009 the President said categorically ‘The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.’
During the Cairo speech Obama addressed seven issues:
1. Violent extremism;
2. The conflict between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world;
3. Nuclear energy and weapons;
5. Religious freedom;
6. Women’s rights;
7. Economic development and opportunity;
These are all serious and relevant topics; Obama appeared to have a good general grasp of the issues and of the general background of Islam and the Middle East. I hasten to say ‘general’ because we cannot expect any President to be an expert on the complex Islam and the Middle East—that is why they have advisors. Some highlights included:
Obama’s acknowledgement to being a Christian while having Muslim relatives;
Praising the Muslims of America and their contribution to the nation;
Condemnation of al Qaeda’s violent extremism, America’s right to defend itself in Afghanistan while foreswearing territorial ambitions;
No overt apology for US policy or actions;
A statement that the bond between the United States and Israel was ‘unbreakable.’
An acknowledgment of anti-Semitism and the reality of the Holocaust, while criticizing Holocaust-denial;
A statement ‘The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.’
Recognition of Palestinian suffering and the need for a 2 state solution.
An exhortation for the Palestinians to renounce violence and Israel to freeze settlements;
A statement that the US overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran (1953); Iran as an Islamic republic practiced violence and hostage-taking against America, but the US now extends a hand towards Iran to go forward;
Recognition of Iran’s entitlement to peaceful nuclear technology;
A stated goal to have a world free of nuclear weapons;
A statement about religious freedom.
Obama appeared to be balanced and even-handed, with no overt sign of appeasement or capitulation. It was far less ‘politically correct’ than expected. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with a US President seeking to build bridges to the Muslim and greater world. But some things need to be kept in mind.
First, the Arab and Muslim world have challenges that cannot be blamed on Israel, the United States, the West, and/or former colonial masters, however fashionable that may be by some leaders. The non-Muslim should not be used as a scapegoat for internal problems. Honest recognition of these internal challenges would go halfway to solving them.
Second, the Muslim world, like the Christian world, is not monolithic. No one person or voice can speak for all Muslims. There are secular Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia and nations ruled by Sharia (7th Century Islamic legal system) like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fifteen per cent of all Muslims are Shiite while eighty-five percent are Sunni. Some Muslims are strictly observant while others are nominal. Even though Islam came out of Arabia, the Qur’an was written in Arabic, and the Arab world is Islam’s epicenter, the fact is that 80% of all Muslims are non-Arabs. Many Muslim nations reject Israel but some have diplomatic relations with it. One nation—Turkey—even has a military alliance with the Jewish state!
It is impossible to address and engage with everyone but in such cases casting the widest net is the best course of action. The needs of many Muslims are identical to non-Muslims so finding a common human denominator can be most profitable. While some seek rapprochement with Islam by trying to find a common ‘theological’ denominator (e.g. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are called the Abrahamic religions), such an approach will not go very far.
Middle East politics can be a hornet’s nest and anyone who sticks their hand in can expect, sooner or later, to be stung. It is inevitable that Obama’s speech would be lauded by some and condemned by others. No doubt, in true postmodern fashion, some critics sought to deconstruct every word in order to discover menacing hidden meanings.
We need to remember that Mr. Obama is a politician, not a theologian or historian. His goal is to foster cooperation and minimize conflict, so his speech cannot be expected to be strictly objective and comprehensive. He cannot be expected to highlight the challenges and failings in the Muslim world on his ‘first date.’ Nevertheless, here are a few points to consider:
Obama said, ‘The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation.’ One commentator asked when and where did this happen?
Obama said "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance." Another commentator retorted ‘Ask the Copts of Egypt, Maronites of Lebanon, Assyrians, Jews, Christians of Bethlehem, and/or the Hindus of India, if they can vouch for such tolerance. Do you think that Jews and Christians would consider their second-class status in Muslim societies as dhimmis to be tolerance?’
Obama said that recent tensions between the West and Islam were due to colonialism, Cold War proxy status, modernity and globalization. Another commentator says that Obama omitted to mention centuries of jihadism, conquest, and colonialism, inspired by Islam’s sacred texts.
Third, while trying to project strength, confidence, and ‘a spirit of partnership’ in the Cairo speech, Obama’s other actions may prove counter-productive. Obama’s bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at the G20 summit in London was unprecedented. No head of state need bow to another, since such action is considered subjugation. Obama did not bow to Queen Elizabeth II—nor should he since neither he nor the United States is under the monarch’s reign. This makes his bow to Abdullah even more bizarre (NOTE: when Obama arrived in Riyadh en route to Cairo, he apparently did not bow to Abdullah a second time).
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama said ‘America is not “just” a Christian nation.’ As President, Obama said that America is not a ‘Christian nation,’ full stop. And he made this statement, not in the United States, but at a press conference in Muslim Turkey!
Yes, it is correct that America has never had an official state church or religion. Yes, as an oasis of religious liberty, America is the proud home of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and the unreligious. Yes, there has been some diminishing of Christianity’s prominent role during the decades old ‘Culture Wars’ between secular humanists and traditionalists. And, ‘Yes,’ the number of self-proclaimed Christians in America has declined from 86% twenty years ago to 75% today.
But it is clear for the world to see that Christianity has had an overwhelming impact—indeed, no nation on earth has been more influenced by Biblical Christianity than the United States of America. Many of the founding fathers were Christians; the Bible was the major inspiration at the time of federation. Every US President has been a member of a church, except for Abraham Lincoln and even he attended church periodically. The US has played a leading role in global Christianity and world missions. America has had an indisputable and universally recognized relationship with the Christian faith.
To deny America’s Christian connection while making great efforts to build bridges with the Muslim world is simply sending the wrong message. Couple this denial with the above mentioned ‘bow’ and it could be interpreted as capitulation and weakness, thus emboldening Muslim militants even further. After all, the Muslim-majority nations are proud of their link to Islam, so why should America’s Christian heritage be swept under the carpet? By affirming the patently obvious, President Obama and the nation he leads would be on a much surer foundation (Matthew 7:24-25).