My first read of President Obama’s speech leaves a great impression with me, and I hope with the Muslim world. He seemed to hit all the right themes, including one I didn’t think he would touch.
He put the conflict between Islam and the west in historic perspective. He noted that Morocco was the first country to recognize the new United States and mentioned President John Adams’ appreciation of that recognition. What he didn’t mention was Thomas Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates that helped inflame American-Muslim tensions early in our history. But that can be forgiven as he acknowledged “centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars.”
Some on the right, searching for criticisms will accuse him of pandering, but for those unfamiliar with Islam’s cultural arc, he sought to enlighten.
It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.
And bringing his own experience to bear,
Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Obama did not hesitate to mention 9/11 early in his speech, unafraid to highlight a traumatic moment that while not justifying anti-Islamism, put America’s political environment in perspective. He also strongly defended the U.S. against stereotyping.
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."
Now, much has been made of the fact that an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. (Applause.) But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores — and that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average. (Applause.)
Moreover, 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.
The theme of the speech seemed to be: speak the truth, as he referenced the Koran, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth." He spoke of the need to defeat extremism in the name of Islam, and made an argument that is made about criminality in the American black community, i.e., victims are often their brothers, and alluded to the African-American struggle as a model for Palestinians
[Muslim extremists] have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths — but more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as — it is as if he has killed all mankind. (Applause.) And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. (Applause.) 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.
…Palestinians must abandon violence. 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.
He also, without mentioning him, directly took on Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling the denial of the Holocaust as “ignorant” and “hateful.” But he also said the denial of a Palestinian state is unacceptable.
For more than 60 years [Muslim and Christian Palestinians] endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
Sixty years is the minimum we should consider in looking at the Middle East conflict.
The issue I did not think he would address was the role of women in Muslim societies. He was firm in his beliefs.
I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. (Applause.) And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.
Now, let me be clear: Issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. (Applause.) Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity — men and women — to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expan
ded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.
By challenging the principals in the Middle East conflict, and by being unafraid to speak truths, he showed courage and conviction. Some have called it an “imperious lecture,” He can leave that impression, but one might have made the same charge about Obama’s speech on race. And we know the general reaction that got. The speech was also characterized as “scolding and combative.” Intellectually combative I can take. In fact, I welcome it when it comes to the Middle East, where we have been too cautious and accommodating for decades.
To those who would complain that there weren’t specific policy initiatives, I would argue that that would have been the height of imperiousness.
In fact, words do matter. One can only hope that setting a framework for his thinking will lay the foundation for specific initiatives later on. You cannot read this speech and suggest that he left an impression favoring Israel or the Palestinians. You cannot say that he apologized for America. Not that everyone will find solace in the speech. Rather they will find something they don’t like.
But much like his speech on race, Obama articulated the truth as both sides see it, without passing judgment. That is the first step.
And as usual, he had a stirring conclusion, as he called on the wisest of us to lead – the young.
I know there are many — Muslim and non-Muslim — who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort — that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There’s so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country — you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.
It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Applause.) This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.
We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.
The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."
The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."
The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Applause.)
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.
Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.