A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"The Speech": First Impressions

I'm not at my best analytically early in the morning, but I want to get a few initial impressions recorded in the immediate aftermath of President Obama's speech. I'll probably be posting more as the day goes on, though I've got a lot of editorial work on my plate today as well.

My first reaction is that the speech was well crafted for the intended audience, but since I'm not that audience, their reaction will be far more important than mine. It covered a lot of subject areas (eight I think), so naturally as Obama himself said at the beginning, "no single speech can eradicate years of distrust." I suspect one response we'll see in the regional press reaction will be an appreciation of the tone of respect and the recognition of the need for progress on Palestinian and other issues, but also a "where's the beef?" question about what the US proposes to do specifically. That wasn't really the role of this speech, but it will be the test of whether this speech's grand intentions and expressions of common interests is seen as sincere or merely lip service.

Another early reaction: as most people seem to recognize, this is a groundbreaking speech. Yet in a saner world, it shouldn't be. A conversation, a dialogue with the Muslim world, really shouldn't be something extraordinary. The tone of mutual respect and shared values, it seemed to me, was maintained well without sounding either cliché-ridden or patronizing. There is always a danger of being perceived as lecturing the audience or "instructing" them rather than trying to have a dialogue. I think he avoided that danger, but again, those more sensitive to the nuances of colonial-era sensitivities than I may have other opinions.

I think he generally handled the use of occasional Arabic/Muslim terms and his use of Qur'anic quotations rather well: not overdone, and without a lot of false notes of artificiality, though he did pronounce hijab as hajib once, and got the accent wrong on al-Azhar, one of the host institutions. A non-Muslim quoting the Qur'an to a Muslim audience always involves a certain risk, but I don't think it was misplaced here.

Obviously some of the historical references — the invention of Algebra, the tolerance of al-Andalus — are clichés, but they at least show an appreciation of the richness of Islamic history. But what the audience came to hear, I suspect, were two of the points: Palestine and Democracy.

On Palestine, his acknowledgment of the suffering of the Palestinians, his recognition of the humiliations of dislocation and occupation, and his statement that the present situation of the Palestinians is "intolerable," will be appreciated; that he balanced this with a clear statement of Israel's right to exist and of the history of the Holocaust was both expected and, I suspect, necessary. His emphasis on saying in public what we are saying in private underscores the reactions we've been seeing in the Israeli media since the Netanyahu visit: surprise that Washington actually seems to mean what they are saying publicly, rather than the usual wink-and-nod while letting settlements expand. And his statement (I'm quoting from my notes, not from official text, so if I'm off a word or two forgive me) that "It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true" is refreshing, provided, of course, it leads to action. But here, in particular, I would expect many in the intended audience to want to see what actions result before judging the expressed intentions. We've all known for years more or less what a solution will look like: getting there from here has always been the problem.

Before leaving Palestine, his references to Hamas were interesting I thought: calling on it essentially to accept Israel's right to exist but also to help build the Palestinian Authority: in effect inviting it into the process if it meets certain conditions? It wasn't explict but there seemed to be a subtle hint that if Hamas works for progress it might have a role to play.

Given the venue, the democracy discussion was naturally something of a minefield, but he seemed to handle it rather well, without singling out Egypt. (And, unless iI missed it, I mainly heard him referring to the hospitality of the Egyptian people, and I don't think Husni Mubarak's name was uttered in the speech.) It sought to combine the traditional US advocacy for human rights with a recognition that the evangelism of recent years in which we seemed to many to be seeking to impose reforms was counterproductive. The fact that Muslim Brotherhood MPs were invited to the speech seems symbolically interesting. (According to press reports, Ayman Nour received an invitation but did not attend.)[UPDATE: Nour was there, according to the highly irreverent blog Rantings of a Sandmonkey, who was there. If you're averse to strong language you may not want to click on the link.]

A final thought: Obama's frequent references to his own personal story — Kenyan Muslim forebears, growing up in Indonesia, being named Barack Hussein Obama — personalized the speech in a way that may have resonated well with the audience. It seemed to draw applause each time. During the campaign there was a sensitivity to the subject because it was seen as a negative (and used as such by some of his opponents), but now he seems to see it as a way to open the door to the Muslim world.

That's my initial, early-morning take on the speech on first hearing. After the coffee fully kicks in I may have more to say.

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