Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 5, 2009

The world responds to Cairo

Filed under: International HLS,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on June 5, 2009

English language media is not the best barometer for measuring reaction among speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, and more.  But it is what I can do.

Thursday night for several hours the “most emailed article” at Al Jezeera English was the full-text of the President’s Cairo speech.  It continues in first place today.

The lead editorial in today’s Daily Star of Lebanon includes, “Obama’s speech wasn’t a lightweight declaration of idealistic principles; it represented a country, through its innovative leader, speaking quietly and carrying a big stick.  Obama emphasized the down side of global interdependence, meaning today’s problems have real-world impact for many countries. Moreover, interdependence is a two-way street: people here are being asked to drop their misperceptions, just as America under Obama’s leadership is prepared to drop its own misperceptions.”

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Gerald Steinberg argues, “The American president may believe that he has articulated the principles of mutual acceptance that “everyone knows to be true,” but this is a stretch. His “everyone” ignores the army of propagandists who promote the anti-Israel narrative, label every act of self-defense a “war crime” and a “human rights violation,” and reject the right of Jewish self-determination… In promoting his peace plan, including the demand for a freeze in Israeli settlements, Obama has imagined a false and highly dangerous symmetry. Israelis are far more vulnerable to American pressure than the Palestinian leaders (Hamas and Fatah) or the dictatorships that control Egypt or Syria. No Israeli leader can afford to ignore or reject American coercion, particularly as Iran continues efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. But if Netanyahu accepts Obama’s demands, and there is little or no change in the hatred, violence and rejectionism on the Arab side, the “land for peace” exchange will fail, and Israel will have neither.”

The BBC gathered several “official reactions,”including this one from Mohammad Marandi, head of North American Studies at Tehran (Iran) University, “With regard to Iran, the tone is significantly more positive than before, compared to the previous US administration, though still in some aspects negative. But I think Iranians alongside the people of the region expect the same change that Obama was promising to the American people, for American policies in the Middle East region as well. America has to change. Talking is not enough. As long as racism and apartheid continue to exist in Palestine there will be no peace in the region.”

The BBC also has a report on how those using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media responded to the speech.

In Pakistan attention to the speech was muted by the nation’s sharp battle against insurgents, hundreds of thousands of internal refugees,  and a possible opening in relations with India.  But the lead editorial in DAWN responds to the speech and is the fifth most emailed (Friday morning US time). After characterizing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in rather hopeless terms, the editorial goes on, “The other issue that can undo Mr Obama’s effort to reach out to the Muslim world is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. No doubt few of Iran’s Muslim neighbours will be comfortable with it acquiring nuclear weapons. At the same time, however, the issue is mired in a deep sense of resentment and unfairness: the US has nuclear weapons but it doesn’t want other countries — read Muslim countries — to have the same capability goes the argument. How the Obama administration treads that tightrope will determine who wins the psychological battle for Muslim hearts and minds.”

I was especially struck by this Associated Press photograph that accompanied DAWN’s front-page news story on the Cairo Speech.  It shows members of the Hamas militia in Gaza listening to the the President.  


CNN has published a well-done round-up of world reaction to the Cairo Speech.

One of the comments on Al Jezeera English is authored by a Muslim American who teaches at the American University of Cairo.  S. Abdallah Schleifer was in the Great Hall to hear the President and had this reaction:

But this extraordinary event was more than superb pacing and performance, more than the soaring, almost classic oratory Obama is famous for and that translates so well into modern literary Arabic.

It was more than soothing and conciliatory words for a predominantly Arab audience here in the Festival Hall, or the millions who watched and listened at home and the office, at universities and cafes courtesy of a dozen live Arab satellite feeds.

A vast Arab audience nursing the grievances of decades sharpened by the blows of the past eight years that preceded Obama’s presidency – the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the brutality of the siege and war on Gaza that cry out for justice and conciliation.

Obama vowed that he was in Cairo “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”, a new beginning based  on respect – a word that figured significantly in this speech – as well as “mutual interests and shared values”.

But it quickly became clear that he was basing that new beginning on acknowledging realities and speaking hard truths – to Americans and to Israelis as well as to Arabs and Muslims.

If the United States remains faithful to the inclusive values of human liberty, in the long run it may be the voice and example of Muslim-Americans that gives our counterterrorist mission a decisive advantage.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 5, 2009 @ 7:03 am

Truly not sure what this President can accomplish vis a vis the Islamic World or portion thereof. As a nation with a rank of about mid-30’s in its Islamic numbers I would argue it is not a major tradition or religion or whatever in the US. Nonetheless, the Islamic world and its traditions are part of our Western Judaeo-Christian heritage, whether we value the contribution in the fullest sense that we should!
The problem I see is that the desert religions have basically relied on force and violence in their traditions. My reading of the Quan and Bible and Talmud is certainly not complete or expert but I really don’t understand the willingness to use force or violence by these religions to expand the base of their believers. OBAMA does not say it but he is uniquely qualified to let the average American know that Islam is not an Eastern religion but a Western religion. The choice of the word Western rather than Christendom is a rather significant choice by historians and scholars. Thanks again to Tom Jefferson and his STATUTE OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM in Virginia and of course for the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

Since I knew so little about the Islamic World before 9/11 been trying to catch up. One blog I find useful that other readers of this blog might also is Juan Cole’s Informed Comment. Also I find the writings and books and articles of Robert Fiske a British newsjournalist that grew up in the middle-east of great interest. I also enjoyed the book of Robert Kagan “The Arabists” that came out a few years ago. His conclusion that the missionary effort in Arabia failed totally, yet those in the American foreign policy establishment that had lived in the middle east and spoke Arabic had much sympathy with the Arab world. Until the discovery of oil and the creation of Israel it was definitely a simpler world. Now up to OBAMA to reconcile those two “dependencies.” Is there such a word?

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