Both the content and the tone of President Obama’s speech at the Cairo University differ distinctively from his predecessor’s similar exercises. George W Bush spoke and behaved as the lord of the world. His belligerence bred more hatred and violence. He claimed divine authority for his actions. For him, America was the centre of the universe.
President Obama is quite the opposite of all that, at least in his Cairo speech. He admitted that the Muslims all over the world were denied certain “rights and opportunities.” He admitted that Muslim-majority countries were treated as “proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” He also underscored the failure of the Muslims in coping with “the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization.”
“This cycle of suspicion and discord must end,” asserted the President. Peace-makers must be empowered. A new beginning must be ushered in between the US and the Muslims. He vowed to fight against the negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appeared. Brave words. The President’s speech unfolded a brave vision. One hopes that Obama will be able to translate his grand vision into reality.
Speaking about the negative stereotypes of Islam, Obama referred to similar stereotypes of America. Unfortunately America has earned these stereotypes by what it has been doing in the last few decades in many countries, just as Islam has earned its stereotypes by its actions. No one can deny what Obama says about the liberal attitudes of America towards diverse cultures, races, religions and languages. “[T]here is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1200 mosques within our borders,” said the President. We, the citizens of the world, salute America for such liberalism. But we would like to see America extending that liberalism to a lot of other areas as well.
“Words alone cannot meet the needs…” These, again, are the words of the President. Obama has spoken at great length on seven vital issues: terrorism, Israel-Palestine conflict, Iran and its nuclear games, democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development. The President should be given much credit for speaking frankly and pragmatically on all these issues. The truth still remains, however, that “words alone cannot meet the needs.”
On Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, the President’s words might sound mere rhetoric to Palestinians since America still continues to support Israel’s skewed policies. Will the world take Obama’s words seriously when he speaks about America’s “commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons”? Will the world buy Obama’s words on extending the hand of friendship to Muslims when American soldiers keep harassing innocent citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the whole world agree that the Afghan war was “a necessity”?
Such doubts notwithstanding, the speech does promise much. Not only by its content but the tone, the way it was delivered, the apparent intentions behind it. For the first time in decades here is an American President who admits some of the serious failures of his nation. Here is a President who comes out with some concrete plans such as scholarships for students, annual investment of $1.5 billion for the next five years to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses in Pakistan, $2.8 billion to help Afghans to develop their economy, and so on. Here is an American President who can make a statement like this: “… when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.”
Hats off to Barack Obama for saying such words. One sees a profound vision behind those words. May Obama have the courage to translate that vision into reality! May America change from being an oppressor and exploiter to a great leader of the world!