Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world was one worth making. He made some important points and made them more firmly than I had hoped he would. True, the president could have done more to clarify our country’s intention to hold to its own values, regardless of public opinion among foreign Muslims, but then he would have been George W. Bush, wouldn’t he?
The only true false note in the speech was, as Peter Daou noted, was Mr. Obama’s malignant little ode to the hijab, a symbol – perhaps the symbol – of male Muslims’ repression of women.
I’ve often written here about honor killings of Muslim women who dared reach inside themselves and find the temerity to try to live as they pleased, only to be beaten, strangled, raped, stabbed, and burned at the hands of the very men who should have protected them and instead allowed a slavish, legalistic observance of Islam to direct them to grotesque forms of violence against their loved ones. That the President of the United States would say, in front of the entire world – with a straight face, mind – that the hijab is a woman’s to wear or not is, frankly, a betrayal of the truth. The right is theirs, certainly, but it is a right yet to be realized, even in the United States where it should be guaranteed without question and all people who come here, Muslim men included, need to acknowledge that’s how we do things here.
Otherwise the speech was on one hand an expression of a pragmatic president who recognizes that the world is far from an ideal place and that it’s necessary to deal with – or at least pretend to deal with – people who have no business ruling nations or controlling weapons of mass destruction. On the other, Mr. Obama was woefully short of details and overlooked the fact that his most interesting ideas for moving the American-Muslim relationship forward will be rejected out of hand by people like Hamas, al Qaeda, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad, puppet master of the Iranian Ayatollahs.
“Progress must be shared,” Obama said. But sharing requires a willing recipient, among other things. Americans are more than willing to share everything we have with the world; however, the Muslim world is defined by its rejection of much of what we have to offer.
Thankfully, one thing it will not be easy for Muslims to reject is Mr. Obama’s blunt acknowledgment of the horrors of the German Holocaust against the Jewish people. Deniers abound in Islamic countries but Obama shone a light on the dark lies such people spread and for that, if little else, Israel should be grateful.
It is inevitable that Israel cede territory to create a Palestinian state. Like the abortion issue in America, it is simply a matter of time before a compromise is reached. Could be years or decades, but it will happen. Why delay? was Mr. Obama’s question, one for which the only answer is a lack of willingness to put aside past grievances – not a reason at all.
Similarly, there is no reason for America not to meet with Iran to discuss world (and nuclear) affairs. Some believe that doing so would be a loss of face and a show of weakness. The reality is otherwise. Meeting is not the same as appeasing. Indeed, such talks could be an opportunity to deliver a message.
It is true that people long for a voice in the governing of their own affairs. On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, nothing could be more obvious or more fundamental. Even in Iran that longing runs strong, though the sort of government Iranians might elect if given free and fair elections instead of the sham they indulge in now might not be to the liking of the west. All people deserve a government of their own choosing. If they choose oppression, so be it.
To my ears Mr. Obama’s remedies for a stultified culture were rushed and insufficiently thought out. High-minded talk of religious freedom means little to a Christian bound and gagged in a Turkish bookstore, just as money dedicated to the education of young Muslim girls will yield few tangible results so long as they fear for their lives and faces should they attend school. Similarly, the notion that the Internet will bring information and intellectual freedom to countries like Iran is naive as long as firewalls and censors with guns line the borders of Muslim countries.
This isn’t to say that Mr. Obama didn’t present good ideas. He did. Unfortunately, few if any of them will be realized during his time in office, even if he wins a second term, as seems likely. That’s true regardless of how many compromises we’re willing to make and how much money we’re willing to spend, because there are too many Ahmadinejads who just aren’t buying what Obama is selling. Hopefully he recognizes that unfortunate fact.