Obama addresses the Muslim world

From Cairo, the president talks relations between the U.S. and Muslims, says "easier to start wars than end them"

By Alex Koppelman

Published June 4, 2009 11:30AM (EDT)

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009.

President Obama has always styled himself as a sort of heir to John F. Kennedy, and, no doubt, he'd like the address to the Muslim world that he gave from Cairo on Thursday to be remembered the way Kennedy's speech in Berlin has been. And like Kennedy, Obama spoke to his audience in their own language. But he deployed that tactic for a different purpose than his predecessor had. When Obama, at the beginning of his speech, used the traditional Muslim greeting, "Assamu alaykum," it was to send the message that would dominate his address: I understand you.

The speech (which Salon has made available in full here) wasn't a major policy address; it didn't mark any substantive shifts in the way the U.S. deals with the world's various Muslim countries, or the position it takes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It went over that ground, sure, but the reason the White House titled the address "A New Beginning" was that they view it as more of a symbolic step, a chance to forge human bonds based on the unique connection the president has to the Muslim world. Though not all of his points seemed to win over his audience, for the most part, he was well received, and was rewarded at the end of his talk with a long and enthusiastic standing ovation.

"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings," Obama said. "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point ... There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' That is what I will try to do -- to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."

Obama spoke of his own history -- "I am a Christian," he said, "but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims" -- but also of a larger one. He mentioned "civilization's debt to Islam," including things like algebra and the magnetic compass, recalled that Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize the U.S. and referred to Thomas Jefferson's Koran. His knowledge of these things, he said, "guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't," and he added that he thinks it's part of his job "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."

But, importantly, the president also emphasized that this phenomenon goes both ways. "Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire," he said.

"We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world ... Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."

The speech wasn't all about human connections, though. Obama also addressed several issues that represent points of conflict between the U.S. and the Muslim world. He spoke of the 9/11 attacks, addressing those Muslims who excuse the attacks or believe various conspiracy theories about them, and castigated al-Qaida and violent extremists generally. He defended the war in Afghanistan, saying "we went because of necessity." At the same time, though, he drew a distinction between the U.S. presence there and the one in Iraq, saying, "Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world." He did, however, say, that he believes the Iraqi people are better off with Saddam Hussein out of power, and he didn't mention his personal opposition to the war.

Of all the topics Obama discussed, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was the thorniest, and the tension seemed evident on his face as he talked about it. That section of the speech was a clear attempt to be even-handed. While he discussed the Holocaust and the history of persecution of Jews in general, said "threatening Israel with destruction ... is deeply wrong," and told Palestinians they "must abandon violence," he also spoke of "the displacement brought by Israel's founding" and said the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

At the end, though, he brought the speech back to that core message, speaking about what we all have in common as people and about working together "to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children."

"It is easier to start wars than to end them," Obama said. "It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples ... It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today."

And finally, in a deliberately unsubtle gesture, Obama quoted from the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of them speaking of peace. "The people of the world can live together in peace," he concluded. "We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth."

Watch clips from the speech:

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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