Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama in Cairo:The mountain climber comes to Mohammed

Even when he got it wrong, it seems, he got it right.

When President Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage Thursday at Cairo University in Egypt, epicenter of the nation that's in many ways the epicenter of the developing Muslim world, it was the fulfillment of a campaign pledge to deliver a major address in a major Muslim capital.

When the moment finally came, Obama rose to the occasion with more of the elegant, powerful oratory we’ve become accustomed to over the last four years, offering a largely anodyne message that was an earnest attempt to start fixing the calamitous course of Muslim-American relations over the last eight years.

None of which stopped a brother from Chicago from making some first-time flubs with a new language. The McClatchy news service noted that some in the audience benignly noticed Obama mangling the word “hejab,” the Muslim word for the ritual headscarf worn by women, saying “hajib” instead.

“The hajib comment, never mind,” said Mahmoud Salem, who blogs as Sand Monkey. “It's a message to the Islamic world — and it was a success.”

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Obama’s address (here’s the text) was laced with other evidence of respect for Islamic tradition, and touched on a number of hot-button regional issues, including the need to implement a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem; the spiritual vacancy of extremism; the vexing matter of expanding Israeli settlements; and concerns over women’s rights (a third-rail issue within Muslim culture).

But the 44th U.S. president, who already faces numerous challenges at home, faces the extra work of making good not on campaign pledges, but on the deeper pledges this nation has made historically to be an honest broker in the region, with deeds and not just words — something this country has failed to do for the last eight years.

Obama, the long-distance campaign runner, now has to be the long-distance mountain climber, someone who realizes that matters related to the fractious Middle East make for a dauntingly steep slog uphill.

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The early reaction to his Cairo address reflected the diversity of opinion in the Muslim world.

“Going to an Arab capital and speaking directly to Muslim people shows how serious he is about improving relations with the Islamic world,” said Abbas Ali, 26, a Baghdad restaurant worker speaking with USA Today.

Others, though, were not quite so charitable. Shirin Sadeghi, a former journalist for BBC and Al-Jazeera, was heartened and disappointed at the same time:

“[H]is words today were more useful to the governments with whom the United States must engage during his administration — governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all of whom have a severely problematic regard for the rights of their people — than for the Muslim people whose living reality is too often stained by insufficient power to improve their lives,” she wrote Thursday at The Huffington Post.

“The White House promoted this speech as a discussion with the Muslim world, but most of what Obama said seemed geared either to the governments of the Muslim world or the Muslims who live in the West.”

“Even when he touched on women's rights, Obama framed it in a Western perspective: he disagrees with Western nations — perhaps an allusion to Germany and France's recent problems — who struggle with Muslim women wearing hejab.

“But he didn't come at the issue from the perspective that was promised — by addressing Muslims in Muslim countries. If that were indeed the case, we should have heard his analysis of women who are compelled or forced to wear hejab in these countries and women whose lives and livelihoods are severely impaired by the segregation of sexes that pervades much of the Muslim world.”

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And for Palestinians, the Obama administration represents both a new opportunity to find a solution, and a new call for that administration to equalize the value of Palestinian lives and objectives with those of Israelis. “The credibility of this administration depends on how much actual pressure they will exercise on Israel immediately,” said Mustafa Barghouti, of the Palestinian Legislative Council, to USA Today.

President Obama has shown a refreshing (and refreshingly consistent) ability to drill down into the weightier, more contentious issues of the day, stripping out their extraneous aspects and distilling what makes them tick, and doing it in a way people can get their minds and hearts around.

“He dives right into the heart of the most nettlesome controversies, the most emotional ones, the most historic ones, and tries, in part using his own life experience, to confront the realities of the debates we should be having, but aren’t always having.” Howard Fineman of Newsweek said on MSNBC on Thursday.

Obama will need that gift for clarity and insight as he pursues a solution to a problem that seems to require not Occam’s razor but Occam’s machete, not a glancing diplomatic blow but a sharp, bold break with the past. The president’s sending a very hopeful signal by taking on the Middle East early in his presidency. A good thing. As other well-intentioned administrations have previously discovered, when it comes to the Middle East, the devil’s not in the details. The devil is the details.
Image credits: Obama top: Still from MSNBC. Obama on stage: Pete Souza, The White House.

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