Few speeches in recent history have been as widely anticipated as the June 4 address of U.S. President Barack Obama to the Muslim world. The speech, delivered in Cairo, was the high point of a four-nation trip to the Middle East and Europe. The speech is intended to signal a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims.” But it will take far more than words, no matter how sincerely felt or well delivered, to reset relations between the U.S. and the billions of Muslims who view it with deep-rooted suspicion.
While it is tempting to see the rift between the U.S and the Muslim world as an outgrowth of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it long predates that horrific day. Some Muslims consider U.S. values a challenge to or repudiation of their religion; the heavy hand of Christian fundamentalism that weighs upon U.S. politics contributes to their sense of alienation. Others are angered by U.S. support for Israel and a seeming indifference to the sufferings of Palestinians (many of whom are Muslims, but some of whom are not). Some resent U.S. support for autocratic Middle Eastern leaders who repress Islamic movements. Compounding all those irritants is frustration and loss of status. Muslims remember how they were for centuries the leading edge of modernity; today most of the Islamic world lags the West. That is an enduring source of shame and anger.
Sept. 11 compounded the pain. Few in the West, especially in the U.S., were ready or able to separate the guilty from the innocent. All Muslims were tarred with the stain of extremism. American anger was intensified by scattered applause for the humbling of the U.S. and the failure of many Islamic leaders to unambiguously condemn the terrorists. Talk of “legitimate grievances” widened the gulf between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
Mr. Obama sought to close that gap. Few Americans, much less presidents, have been better positioned to succeed. Mr. Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia — a fact he noted in his Cairo address when he mentioned hearing prayer calls daily as a boy — and his middle name — Hussein — is of Arabic provenance. His election was heralded as repudiation of the “cowboy policies” of his predecessor, Mr. George W. Bush, and the beginning of a new era of engagement with the world. That process has been under way since Mr. Obama took office: one of the stops on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip overseas was Indonesia, and the president himself sent Persian New Year’s greetings to Iranians.
Acknowledging faults on both sides, Mr. Obama said, “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” He conceded divisions were sown by “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” He spoke of the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians. But he demanded that both sides look firmly at themselves before blaming others. “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
He waded directly into the policies that have sown discord. He condemned terrorism, quoting the Quran in defense of his argument that such action is “irreconcilable with the rights of human beings.” He took square aim at the policies of Israelis, Palestinians and other Arab states: “The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people.” Hamas “must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Meanwhile, “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” Bluntly, he said his government “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” on the West Bank and outskirts of Jerusalem: “It is time for these settlements to stop.” He then called on Arab governments to stop using the conflict with Israel as an excuse for or distraction from their own failures.
Given expectations surrounding the speech, it was bound to disappoint. Ironically though, one measure of its success is the criticism it garnered among every audience. American critics accused him of sycophancy — his use of an Arabic greeting was the chief offense — and of going soft on terrorists, noting the word “terrorism” was not uttered in the speech. Israelis complained that their sufferings were seemingly put on par with those of Palestinians, while Arab and Palestinian audiences were disappointed because the speech contained no concrete proposals to address their grievances.
That last charge is accurate. But Mr. Obama knows that one speech is no substitute for the hard work of creating peace in the region. His special envoy, Mr. George Mitchell, is following up and building on the work that has already begun.
Progress depends on changing the atmosphere. Here, Mr. Obama is making progress. Mainstream Islamic leaders applauded his outreach, calling it “a good start” and “an important step.” But real success is only possible when all parties recognize their own roles and responsibilities for making and sustaining peace. It is not someone else’s job, no matter how powerful he may be.