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Obama's Post-Neocon Appeal to Islam

By Dan Froomkin
10:20 AM ET, 06/ 4/2009


Obama in Cairo. (Getty Images)

In a much-anticipated speech, President Obama in Cairo today called for a fundamental resetting of the relationship between America and Islam, acknowledging a long estrangement that he said dramatically degenerated after the 9/11 attacks led some Americans to see all of Islam as the enemy and incited our government to take actions that violated our own ideals.

"The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust," he said.

But, he argued: "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

"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."

The first American president with personal connections to Islam -- through his father, a childhood spent partially in Indonesia, and his middle name -- said he considers it "part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."

And Obama soundly rejected the neoconservative principles and fear-spawned overreactions that so defined the George W. Bush administration's approach to the Muslim world.

He cast the Iraq war as a profound refutation of the neocon axiom that the exercise of power itself projects strength and leads to impregnability: "Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world," he said. "Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: 'I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.'"

He rejected the notion that democracy can be achieved at the barrel of a gun: "[L]et me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other," he said.

And while stopping well short of delivering an apology, Obama acknowledged that strong emotional reactions at the highest levels of government led America to briefly abandon its values. "[J]ust as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles," he said. "9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year."

It was a wide-ranging speech that touched on issues of war and peace, violence and nonviolence, democracy, religious freedom, economic development and women's rights. The standing ovation Obama received from the crowd was a powerful contrast with the tossed shoes that greeted Bush's last speech in the region.

And time and again, Obama returned to the theme that truth-telling was the answer to the most stubborn problems -- including the issue of peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab world.

Despite all the build-up, Obama said "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. 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."

He described in vivid language the history of the Jews that led to their desire for a homeland -- and issued a powerful denunciation of Holocaust deniers. But he also spoke movingly of the plight of the Palestinians, and ascribed the current stalemate to "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive."

Obama didn't put forth any new peace plan -- choosing instead to restate the principles he's been developing over the last several weeks. But he seemed to see a great deal of hope in the truths that lie beneath what in a recent interview with Thomas L. Friedman he called the region's "Kabuki dance."

"America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs," he said. "We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true."

And Obama's reference to the history of African Americans somehow made his plea to the Palestinian people to end the cycle of violence seem fresh and particularly potent. "Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed," he said. "For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."

Obama ended his speech by embracing a principle that, oddly and ironically, seems particularly radical today in the region that is the birthplace of religions. "There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion," he said, " - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples - a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. 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."

All in all, it was a hugely idealistic speech that took its strength from its embrace of reality. And it was a speech that was memorable for Obama's dream for the region: "A world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God's children are respected."

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