Monday, June 8, 2009

Comments on Obama's Cairo speech

How do we read that speech? Is it reaching out to the Muslim world or just a change of tactics for the neo-imperial ambitions?

Above: Dr. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley shares his perspective with a crowd of demonstrators at a rally against the 60 year old occupation of Palestine just a few days after Obama's speech in Cairo. Also see Part II and Part III

Robert Fisk: Words that could heal wounds of centuries

The Independent, June 5, 2009

Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor. Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.

Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at Cairo University "re-imagine the world" and heal the wounds of centuries between Muslims and Christians? Will it resolve the Arab-Israeli tragedy after more than 60 years? If words could do the job, perhaps...

It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday, as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish for – and we were all his audience. He praised Islam. He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved Christianity. And he admired America. Did we know that there were seven million Muslims in America, that there were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco was the first nation to recognise the United States and that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?

But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to avoid hurting feelings in Israel. To deny the facts of the Jewish Holocaust was "baseless, ignorant and hateful", he said, a remark obviously aimed at Iran. And Israel deserved security and "Palestinians must abandon violence..."

The United States demanded a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis there had to be a total end to their colonisation in the West Bank. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," Obama said and the US would not turn its back on the "legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own". Israel had to take "concrete steps" to give the Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to exist. Wow. Not for a generation has Israel had to take this kind of criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?

Alas, he did. Indeed, at times, the Obama address sounded like the Bush General Repair Company, visiting the Muslim world to sweep up mountains of broken chandeliers and shredded flesh. The President of the United States – and this was awesome – admitted his country's failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its creation of Guantanamo which, Obama reminded us all again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama...

We got to Iran. One state trying to acquire nuclear weapons would lead to a "dangerous path" for all of us, especially in the Middle East. We must prevent a nuclear arms race. But Iran as a nation must be treated with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us that the US had connived to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadeq government of Iran in the Fifties. It was "hard to overcome decades of distrust".

There was more; democracy, women's rights, the economy, a few good quotes from the Koran ("Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind".) Governments must respect "all their people" and their minorities. He mentioned the Christian Copts of Egypt; even the Christian Maronites of Lebanon got a look in.

And when Obama said that some governments, "once in power, are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others", there was a roar of applause from the supposedly obedient audience. No wonder the Egyptian government wanted to select which bits of Obama's speech would be suitable for the Egyptian people. They were clearly very, very unhappy with the police-state regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Obama did not once mention Mubarak's name.

Over and again, one kept saying to oneself: Obama hasn't mentioned Iraq – and then he did ("a war of choice... our combat brigades will be leaving"). But he hasn't mentioned Afghanistan – and then he did ("we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan... we will gladly bring every one of our troops home"). When he started talking about the "coalition of 46 countries" in Afghanistan – a very dodgy statistic – he began to sound like his predecessor. And here, of course, we encountered an inevitable problem. As the Palestinian intellectual Marwan Bishara pointed out yesterday, it is easy to be "dazzled" by presidents. This was a dazzling performance. But if one searched the text, there were things missing.

There was no mention – during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran – of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for "shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus". But there was no mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the "continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza". Nor was there a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this. The Holocaust loomed out of his speech and he reminded us that he was going to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp today.

For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan – a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners – there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam – the "light of learning" in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism, on "cycles of suspicion and discord" – even if America and Islam shared "common principles" which turned out to be "justice, progress and the dignity of all human beings".

There was one merciful omission: a speech of nearly 6,000 words did not include the lethal word "terror". "Terror" or "terrorism" have become punctuation marks for every Israeli government and became part of the obscene grammar of the Bush era.

An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One could only remember Churchill's observations: "Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."

Edit, June 21, 2009: Added Charles Hirschkind's reference and excerpts:

Obama on Palestine: What New Beginning?
By Charles Hirschkind, The Immanent Frame, June 9, 2009


"Obama also made mention of the suffering of the Palestinian people, a point that many have taken as evidence of a more balanced approach to the region. What he actually said, however, points in a contrary direction. It is a masterful formulation, and bears closer scrutiny. “It is undeniable,” he noted, “that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” A “homeland,” of course, is precisely not what the Palestinians have been pursuing. They are on it, and have long been so, except for those now living as refugees and whose return Obama is on the record as opposing. It is rather the Jewish people, not the Palestinians, whose history we recognize in the phrase “pursuit of a homeland,” a people whose moral claim to such a homeland is based in centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, a point Obama began with in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian situation. It is a mistake, however, to see Obama’s use of this expression to characterize the predicament of the Palestinians as evidence of “balance” or “evenhandedness.” What we find instead is that the terms of recognition by which Palestinian suffering can be acknowledged—the need for a homeland—are precisely those whose ultimate moral reference is the foundation of Israel. In other words, the moral force of Palestinian claims is made to rest upon the very example that has produced their dispossession."

"As I am writing from Spain, I cannot resist a few words on this last point. What are we to make of this oddest of historical blunders, in a speech that otherwise shows such careful and meticulous craftsmanship? Here are the two lines: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” Muslim tolerance during the Inquisition?! Such a slip in an otherwise seamless speech begs interpretation. What displacement or condensation has occurred such that the celebrated convivencia of al-Andaluz is now made contemporaneous with the forced conversion, slaughter, and exile of Spain’s Muslim and Jewish populations under the Inquisitorial regime? Are we to find in this image a call to the inhabitants of Gaza, or to the villagers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, to practice their celebrated Muslim tolerance in the face of their own devastation by American and Israeli armies and weaponry?"

No comments: