Obama's overture to the Muslim world


CHANGE CANNOT happen overnight, US president Barack Obama told his audience in Cairo University on Thursday. And nor can a single speech eradicate years of mistrust between Muslims and the West. These self-imposed caveats aside, it must be recognised that his address gracefully began his objective of creating “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground”.

Framed in an engaged approach towards the Muslim world, Mr Obama skilfully inserted seven major policy tensions which inflame its relations with the West yet can help repair them if tackled in common.

The rapt attention with which the speech was followed in Cairo and throughout the Middle East, and the enthusiastic reception it received there, show this is so. It is important to understand why Mr Obama surveyed the full historical and cultural record of these relationships to begin a genuine dialogue. The Bush administration actively fanned anti-Muslim prejudice in its battle against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. This framed the agenda underlying its approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, nuclear proliferation, democratic change, religious freedom and women’s rights, five of the tensions addressed in Mr Obama’s speech. Strikingly, it contains no reference to the “war on terror” but rather to “violent extremism in all its forms”. He stated categorically that “America is not and never will be at war with Islam”.

The speech emphasised the ancient and abiding commonality between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, insisted they are not fated to disagree or clash culturally, and recognised the immense contribution Islamic culture has made to Western civilisation by spreading its learning and tolerance. In going on to emphasise the role of seven million Muslims in the US, including his own biographical background, Mr Obama drove home his message that “Islam is a part of America”.

These passages of his speech apply equally to Europe, where they are just as relevant in tackling stereotypes and prejudices about the Islamic world. So do his remarks about women’s rights to wear the hijab if they choose, rather than, as he put it, disguising “hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism” by dictating what clothes a woman should wear. Islam and the West are, after all, different categories, the one religious, the other geopolitical. A successful dialogue along the lines set out by Mr Obama would transform them by concentrating more on commonalities than differences.

Framed in this way it should become easier to tackle the six sources of tension between the US, its Western allies and the Muslim world identified by Mr Obama – and also the seventh, the search for economic development and opportunity. He was forceful yet even-handed on Israel and Palestine, candid on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and frank on the need for more democracy in Arab states. Action and delivery must, of course follow. But this was an excellent start to reframing relations.