Obama’s overture to Islamic world

15 June 2009
President Barack Hussein Obama’s address from Cairo on the relationship between the US and the Islamic world lays the foundation for a radical change in western attitudes towards Muslims, writes Praful Bidwai.

President Barack Hussein Obama’s address from Cairo on the relationship between the US and the Islamic world lays the foundation for a radical change in western attitudes towards Muslims. Obama’s speech, calling for “a new beginning,” comes when the whole Islamic world, including “moderate” states like Egypt, is angry at violent US interventions in Muslim-majority countries.

President Barack Hussein Obama’s address from Cairo on the relationship between the US and the Islamic world lays the foundation for a radical change in western attitudes towards Muslims, writes Praful Bidwai.

President Barack Hussein Obama’s address from Cairo on the relationship between the US and the Islamic world lays the foundation for a radical change in western attitudes towards Muslims. Obama’s speech, calling for “a new beginning,” comes when the whole Islamic world, including “moderate” states like Egypt, is angry at violent US interventions in Muslim-majority countries. Opinion polls show that Muslims everywhere, including their three-fourths majority who live outside the Middle East, welcomed the tone of the speech. Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Iraqi cleric, appreciated it as “soft-spoken and eloquent.”

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said Obama’s words reflected a “tangible change,” despite “contradictions.” A former Islamic Jihad leader termed the speech “historic” and said it lays “the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect.” The Israeli Right is yet to recover from the shock it suffered from Obama’s advocacy of a Palestinian homeland. This is a good test to judge the overall worth of the address.

Obama spoke sincerely and passionately about Islam and America, perhaps far more candidly and respectfully than any other US president. He emphasised his personal connection with Islam through lineage, interaction with Muslims, and familiarity with the Holy Quran.

Obama advanced several propositions. First, there’s no incompatibility between “Western” values and Islam, or between modern institutions like democracy and Islamic culture. Islam, said Obama, supports a relaxed and comfortable approach towards democracy, human rights and tolerance. He cited peaceful Muslim-Christian-Jewish coexistence during the Middle Ages and Islam’s “proud tradition of tolerance … in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.”

Second, Obama said that Muslims have a definite place within America’s political system and in its multi-religious, multicultural and plural society. Third, Obama implicitly criticised the west’s politics of domination directed at other parts of the world. He described Iraq’s invasion as “a war of choice,” one a necessity imposed upon the US. This admission is a major criticism of the Bush administration.

Fourth, Obama highlighted the question of Palestine and the “suffering” of its people, and stressed the imperative need for a just two-state solution. He did say that the US-Israel bond is “unbreakable.” But he also deplored Israel’s settlements on land appropriated illegally from the Palestinian people. Fifth, Obama promised to talk to Iran without preconditions. He defended Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities compatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The emphasis here was on non-proliferation, not nuclear disarmament. Had he emphasised his recently outlined vision of a nuclear weapons-free world, and America’s own NPT obligations, he would have been more balanced.

Obama’s pronouncements mark a big change in discourse. But they fall short of the threshold of change in policy and action. For instance, on Palestine, he deplores violence by Israel and Hamas. But there’s a difference between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people. Israel is an occupying power and has no legal or moral rights. But the Palestinians are protected under international law and the Geneva Conventions. They have a right to resist occupation—including the use of military means against occupation soldiers.

The two kinds of violence are different in scale. Israel has killed many more Palestinian civilians than the other way around, including 1,400 Gazans during its recent invasion. Obama also elides over the root causes of the Palestinians’ violence and their “suffering” in “pursuit of a homeland.” But the Palestinians had a homeland from which they were driven out in 1948. Israel’s policy of deliberate dispossession and impoverishment has caused inhuman oppression and humiliating deprivation. Israel has turned Gaza into the world’s biggest concentration camp.

Similarly, Obama’s description of the Palestinians and Israelis as “two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history” ignores the gross disproportion between the two. He goes further than most US leaders in recognising “legitimate Palestinian aspirations” but limits them to “dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” He doesn’t mention the vital right of return from exile caused by their “dislocation” for six decades.

Obama exhorts Israel to “live up to its obligation” to end the occupation, freeze settlements and “acknowledge” the Palestinians’ right to a homeland. But he falls short of promising to secure Israel’s compliance through sanctions, or by cutting off the annual $3 billion US military aid to it. Nor does he specifically demand adherence to numerous Security Council resolutions, like 242 and 338, which Israel has violated.

On Iran, Obama acknowledges the US “role in the overthrow of a democratically elected … government,” but equates it with Iran’s culpability for “acts of hostage-taking and violence against US troops and civilians.” The two cannot be equated.

It’s a big step for a US president to take responsibility for the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government. Yet, Obama neither called for a regional peace conference involving Iran, nor explicitly rejected recent calls for a broad anti-Iran alliance including the US, Israel and Arab states.

On Afghanistan, Obama said the US invasion was “a war of necessity” which reflects “America’s goals.” This is questionable. But his statements that “we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan” and “we seek no military bases there” are no more than expressions of pious intent. Obama has made Afghanistan his own war and emphasised that US troops are there because there are “violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” This suggests prolonged occupation.

The plan to donate $2.8 billion to help the Afghans “develop their economy” pales into insignificance beside the $100 billion war-funding requested for Iraq and Afghanistan. US development aid to Afghanistan is yet to match the levels of military funding to the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation.

Obama debunks the Bush administration’s claim that the Iraq war was meant to “promote democracy” and says that “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other,” and that the US “would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election [and that] we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments…” But this doesn’t square up with the US record, or recent statements by other US leaders on making support to governments in the Middle East dependent on the outcome of elections, as in Lebanon.

There is a larger problem with Obama’s speech. He talks to the faithful, and homogenises Islam across its diverse histories, cultures, practices and customs. This leaves little room for secular Muslims or for those who are Muslim by virtue of culture and not theological faith. It leaves no room for Muslim women fighting for equality.

Despite these flaws, Obama’s speech makes a major break with the US tradition of hegemonism, militarism and unilateralism. It signifies movement towards a cooperative, peaceful engagement with the Islamic world. This shift is important. But it must be translated into new policies and actions on the ground — towards ending the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, resolutely pushing for a just solution to the Palestinian question, and for negotiations with Iran, Israel and other regional states which lead to a Middle Eastern zone free of mass-destruction weapons as a step towards global nuclear weapons elimination.

That agenda is still ahead of us.


Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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