Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama in Cairo

I'm the kind of person who likes to be able to go stright to the source. Get too many people between you and a message you want to hear and pretty soon you realize the message you heard and the message intended aren't the same. So I very much wanted to hear (or at least read) President Obama's speech as given in Cairo, Egypt today. Both sides of the political spectrum here have made great ballyhoo about the core of the message being an "apology" from the United States to the Muslim world for, frankly, the Bush Presidency. Those on the right, especially, have been voiciferous in lambasting the president for daring to give such a speech.

So you, too, can enjoy reading his speech without interruption, I'll offer a link to it here (courtesy of That way you can leap to the speech without bothering with the rest of this post, which contains my impressions of what the president said.

First of all, a nitpick. I always find it a bit pretentious when speech writers include pauses for applause or whatever in the texts of their speeches.

Firstly, Obama delivered a speech that embraces the importance of religious diversity and the tolerance of such, a message that ought to be given in certain liberal circles in the United States, where hostility towards religion and the peaceful living of it is on the increase. Obama said:

Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.
Fine example here. Its is pretentious of Christians to insist in the United States that Muslim women not be allowed to wear their head scarves. I see such scarves occasionally in the area where I live, and they don't bother me in the least. Nor am I bothered when I hear people in my community conversing in Spanish or doing so while preapring to attend Catholic mass.

This is more than the tolerance that liberalism espouses. Because I also believe it's pretentious for liberal Californians to be aghast when Mormons and Catholics participate to prohibit gay marriage in that state, when that practice is abhorrent to their religious views. Is that religion foisting its values -- or restrictions -- on others? I suppose it is. But I have to believe what Obama told the folks in Cairo:

We can't disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.

In asking me to surrender my belief that gay marriage is morally wrong, you're asking me to deny a part of my religion behind the pretence of liberalism. Where one gains freedom, another loses societal morality. Does this mean we need to tolerate extremism in religion? Absolutely not. Nor should extremism in liberality trump religion.

Back to the speech. I don't think he delivered the bang-boom "apology" that many in the media were drooling for. I, for one, think he did a fine job defending America overall as a nation. Observe:
Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of self interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum -- "Out of many, one."
He's reminding them in Cairo -- and us at home -- what we stand for. Yes, he made conciliatary moves on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. I applaud those moves. I'm relieved to hear that while troops won't be pulled out immediately, there is a plan and a timetable for getting them home. I'm glad he re-emphasized that the United States has no colonial ambitions (a claim I've always found ludicrous, but it's one that had to be dealt with).

He also reminds us that in our narrow view of Islam, we miss much of what the religion stands for.

The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as -- it is as if he has killed all mankind. And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace.

On that note, he arrives in Israel, supporting the right of that nation to exist, but not at the cost of alienating its neighbors by continuing to build settlements where Israel has already agreed they would not build.

He decries violence in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict:

Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That's not how moral authority is claimed; that's how it is surrendered.

I also like this, Obama's proposals to increase health and entrepreneurial partnerships between the U.S. and the Islamic world:

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We'll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops. Today I'm announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

I also appreciate that he couched this new initiative with this:

There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.

No more the image of Tom Tuttle from Tacoma, Washington, going into Thailand, building a bridge and handing it over to the Commies. Or the Yankees, for that matter. There's a strong emphasis on progress combined with self-determination. I like that.

In all, a good speech, which echoes many of my own thoughts on conflict resolution and humanity's ability to get along peaceably. Of course, the rub here is to get these ideas to stick, and to follow through. There's always a lack of follow-through.

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