The White House had long been plugging today’s speech as the most important foreign policy speech Obama has yet made. The circumstances were indeed historic. Obama is, I think, uniquely placed to make such a speech: his father was a Muslim, as are a great number of his relatives; he lived for several years of his life in Indonesia; he understands, more perhaps than any of his predecessors, the nature of both the Muslim faith and of Muslim nations.
NBC’s Brian Williams, in an interview this week with the President, proffered that this was a speech President Bush could never have given. Obama disagreed. I’m somewhere between the two. Bush could have given this speech, just not with the same force or hope of being heard where it matters. There is a great deal about Obama which explains why he is preferred in the eyes of the Islamic world to most other Americans: a number of recent polls show his approval among citizens particularly of Muslim nations in the Middle East as being higher than that of the nation he leads.
The speech today was long, and it needed to be: it didn’t leave much left unsaid. Two things struck me about it. First, it was honest almost to the point of being self-consciously so. It was frank about both the mistakes of the American government and people in the past, not just in terms of policy but also, significantly, in terms of attitudes. He acknowledged, very early on, that this is “a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world; tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate,” and spoke of the “mistrust” that has at times characterised the relationship. Second, it showed great respect. The tone was one of reverence — of the Islamic religion, of the traditions of Islam, of the achievements not just of Muslims around the world but also in the United States.
The emphasis was on the sense of similarity, of the common strands to be found in the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions. He ended the speech with three quotes, one from the Koran, another from the Talmud, another from the Bible, each of which made the same argument in favour of peace. Speaking of the first Muslim-American to be elected to Congress, Obama told how “he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”
With all this we should not be surprised. It is what defines Obama’s political style: the thought that in any disagreement, what unites us is more often greater than what divides us, and by focussing on our commonality we can reach agreement.
That said, for every pronouncement of commonality, every admission of America’s past shortcomings, every statement of respect, there was an encouragement to his audience that they should reciprocate. The President stressed the importance of democracy, of equal rights for women, and of human rights more generally. He implored his audience not to see America as a caricature, a stereotype. On Israel-Palestine, he stressed that both sides had commitments they needed to meet; on Iran, he stressed his hopefulness that Iran might become a member of the leading group of nations, if only they would not pursue nuclear arms.
The message, in a nutshell, was threefold. First, we’re not so different, but we do have our differences. Second, both of us need to do more, but let’s not reduce each other to stereotypes. Third, the more we act as partners the closer we move to success.
Words will not alone be enough, but this change in tone should not be underestimated.
The best passage was, when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama channelled Martin Luther King. We’ve heard the argument before but not in a long while so well said.
“Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all the children of Abr
aham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed joined in prayer.”