US President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo on June 4 was quite rhetorical duly impressing his audience. He touched all the right emotional buttons: commencing his address with the traditional Muslim greeting of Assalamu alaikum and quoting verses from the Qur’an. This sent the crowd inside and outside the hall into frenzy. Muslims become misty-eyed if non-Muslim politicians greet them with Assalamu alaikum. And if they quote the Qur’an, like Obama did, then they are prepared to forgive and forget no matter what their past misdeeds. Having lived in Muslim countries and with family connections to Muslims — Obama’s father is a Muslim although he insists he (Obama) himself is Christian — he knows what moves Muslims. In Cairo, Obama skilfully played up his Muslim links. During last year’s presidential campaign, he had shunned Muslims as if they were lepers.
But we must examine Obama’s speech beyond its rhetoric even if he took liberties with some historical facts such as claiming that the US had no enmity with Islam. He said, “In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’” This was written at a time when the Americans were planning to attack the “Berbery pirates” off the coast of North Africa because they controlled the sea lanes. The people referred to as “Berbery pirates” were inhabitants of the land that wanted to protect their area from predators.
First, let us consider the positive points in Obama’s speech. He acknowledged that relations between the US and the Muslim World were strained and that this was not entirely the fault of Muslims. He said he had come “to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect...” He even acknowledged Muslim contribution to science by recognizing “civilization’s debt to Islam.” He announced to loud applause, “Islam is a part of America,” and acknowledged the presence of 7 million Muslims and 1,200 mosques. Yet he has not visited a single mosque in the US. The only visitors have been FBI agents with visibly marked uniforms and cars to intimidate law-abiding Muslims as they perform their religious duties.
On the political front, he admitted — becoming the first American president to do so — US role in overthrowing, through a CIA-engineered coup in 1953, the government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. He accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This is a step forward because hitherto, American and European officials have demanded Iran’s suspension of enrichment before there could be any discussion on the issue. Obama also called for a world free of nuclear weapons but he immediately qualified this by saying, “When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.” This was an arrow directed at Iran despite repeated declarations to the contrary by Iranian officials at the highest level. There was no mention of the Israeli nuclear arsenal that has terrorised the region for decades.
Let us now consider his objectionable pronouncements. He tried to spread responsibility for America’s financial meltdown and profligacy by claiming “when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.” There was no hint that Americans lead a life of rapacious extravagance that cannot be matched by others because the world does not have the resources. Yet, in order to maintain such a standard of living, the US wages wars across the oceans killing innocent people. Even while declaring that “America will never be at war with Islam,” he called the US invasion of Afghanistan a “war of necessity.” His justification was “When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean” and thus “We will… relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security — because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children.” He was stretching the truth. US forces in Afghanistan routinely bomb wedding parties and kill hundreds of innocent civilians, many of them women and children, that pose no threat to the US. This has never bothered the conscience of any American official, including Obama.
Even if al-Qaeda killed 3,000 Americans in September 2001, that cannot justify the murder of 100,000 Afghan civilians and the extension of that war into Pakistan. Innocent people are still being subjected to horrible torture in Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. There are ghost prisons with unknown numbers of people undergoing torture. And what does Obama have to say about this? He wants to shut down Guantanamo but the discredited military tribunals will continue; innocent detainees cannot be rehabilitated in the US because they may pose a threat to the American way of life and such people will remain incarcerated unless some remote island is willing to give them shelter.
Regarding Afghanistan, Obama said “We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” In the meantime, US forces kill every alleged extremist, as part of the US policy of winning hearts and minds. Iraq was the “war of choice” but there was no apology for the lie or the destruction of its infrastructure and the murder of 1.3 million people in the process of liberating them. The only consolation offered to the Iraqis was that they were “better off without the tyranny of Saddam.” Really?
On the future of Palestine, while he recognised the suffering of Palestinian people as “intolerable” he asserted America’s strong bond with Israel. His concern for freedom and justice had been suspended. Palestinians had “endured the pain of dislocation” for 60 years but is it mere dislocation or theft of their land at the point of Zionist guns? And what should Palestinians do? They “must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.” There was not even a hint that the Zionists must give up their murderous ways. Nor did Obama mention Zionist attacks and the continued siege of Gaza. The only reproach to Israel was that the US did not accept the legitimacy of “continued Israeli settlements.” This has been US policy for decades so this was not new. There was a stern demand of Arab states to recognize Israel. These US-puppet regimes are more than willing, only if Israel would accept their surrender.
Overall, Obama offered little new except fine rhetoric. It was a masterful performance in perception management that some gullible Muslims will fall for. The Muslims problem is not with the American people but the unjust and aggressive policies of the US. Unless these change, rhetoric will not be able to restore peace.