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Obama's Cairo Speech: the Value of Words

By Rafia Zakaria

In his own words, President Obama came to Cairo to announce “a new beginning” the end of a long grim chapter of acrimony between the United States and the Muslim world. If words are the primary tool of turning the page on history, then the President’s speech hit all the right notes. It recognized the contributions of Islam and Muslims to the world and to the United States, It recognized the problems engendered from forcing democracy down the throats of unwilling publics in Iraq. It reiterated his Administration’s commitment to end torture in Guantanamo, to come to the aid of refugees in Pakistan and most importantly for his Arab audience; find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For all the ensuing media chatter on the necessity of following his beautiful words with beautiful deeds, President Obama deserves credit for his overtures. While there is legitimacy to the cries of skeptics who have emphasized repeatedly the necessity of following beautiful words with equally resplendent policy changes; a moment must be reserved to recognize the value of the words themselves. One reason for this is that so much of the rhetorical detritus left behind by the Bush Administration was instrumental in defining both American attitudes toward Muslims and consequent Muslim animosity toward the United States. Ignominies like the “axis of evil”, “Islamofacists” and “Islamic terrorist” all became part of world media lingo; their virulence sowing subliminal seeds of hatred every time they bounced of lips and resounded in ears.

The language of commonality thus, be it only a rhetorical device employed by this new era of American power then does mean something even in itself. The speech was given from Cairo and was peppered thoroughly with references to the Quran and gave prominent place to the interspersion of American history with Muslim history. Unlike the condescension of speaking from above, to highlighting difference; the tone, quality and venue of the speech were all designed to convey the message that the United States wants an engagement with the Muslim world that is based on mutuality rather than arrogance.

Other critiques of the speech have focused on the choice of Egypt as a venue for his speech. According to Amnesty International 2009 report, President Mubarak’s Government continued to hold “grossly unfair” military trials in which political opponents and dissidents were imprisoned without process. Over 10,000 people remained in administrative detentions according to Amnesty’s estimates, human rights defenders and media professionals were routinely harassed and a bevy of repressive laws denied Egyptians political expression and freedom of association.

Egypt’s grim human rights record and the criticism that the Obama Administration has received for having chosen it as a venue for the much touted speech presents thus the dilemma before the President in attempting to undo the moral damage. First, critiquing a Muslim country for its failing human rights record is perhaps too reminiscent of Iraq and the run up to its invasion. Second, such critique draws attention to the United States own human rights violations which have received much attention in the Arab and Muslim world. The point then is simple, in the effort to build bridges, to move forward from history, to recognize the real substantive differences that have caused chasms between the United States and the Muslim world, the hand of friendship must be extended in the world as it exists rather than the world has one would have it.

In this sense, the first overture cannot be more than what President Obama has done: a symbolic extension of the hand of friendship, a rhetorical turn from difference to mutuality and a change in attitude from hubris to respect. Much can be said about the ways in which symbols can fail, and the gray moral landscape inhabited by both the United States and the Muslim world: but a moment must be taken to appreciate that in the world of politics and global sound bytes words do means something. They define both the way Americans see Muslims and vice versa, in this sense the words of President Obama represent a crucial first step, measured and mediated but necessary and welcome.


Rafia Zakaria is associate editor of

Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.

Quran: 3:104
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