By FAIZ AL-NAJDI
President Barack Obama’s historic address of Thursday 04 June-09 from Cairo is certainly talk-of-the-town now. A great speaker that he certainly is, he was surely able to leave some good impressions especially in the Muslim world and the results are showing already. The elections results of Lebanon, where a pro-West coalition has been able to trounce the Hezbollah-led coalition, and those in Iran, where street protests go on with full fervor, may be termed as the testimony to the same. His speech continues to resonate all over and is already winning praises from his foes and friends alike. The pundits say, in his 55-minute address he was able to connect to the Muslim world largely because of the fact that he was bold enough to speak the truth.
President Obama’s speechwriter – Jonathan Favreau – has both powerful and magical pen. However Obama himself is a great orator. He is also a writer of exceptional power. His two memoirs – “Dreams from my father” and “The audacity of hope” speak volumes about his writing skills. So, I am sure Jon Favreau must have received lots of useful input from his boss this time around. The frequent quotations from the Quran and even beginning the address with Salam Alaikum – the Islamic greeting meaning “peace be upon you” – seem to suggest that President Obama had to do a lot of spade work and studying before Jon finalized his speech. Not withstanding his skills of writing and oratory and knowing the fact that President Obama’s favorite past time is reading, I seem to have a gut feeling that much of the contents of his speech is derived from the last book of Benazir Bhutto – Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy & the West.
The entire tone & tenor of his speech is set against the theme of reconciliation with the Muslim world. Benazir’s book per se has the same focus. In his opening remark President Obama said, “We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world – tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate”. He further added, “The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars”. He reminded that more recently tension between the two have also been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims. He mentioned about the Cold war wherein Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regards to their own aspirations. He also touched base on the issues of modernity and globalization that brought about sweeping changes viewed largely by the Muslims to be as elements hostile to the traditions of Islam. Interestingly enough, all of these also remain the core subject issue of Benazir’s book in question.
The President remarked in his speech that the violent extremists in a small but potent minority of Muslims have exploited and still seek to exploit these tensions. In this connection he cited from the ugly incident of 9/11 which according to him has led some in his country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. He added, “This has led to more fear and mistrust”. He cautioned in very clear terms that so long as the relationship between Islam and the West continued to be defined by the differences between the two, it would only serve to empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation. He suggested that the cycle of suspicion and discord between the parties concerned must end now. And, in this context he added that he had come in Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world. He did not hesitate to define the boundaries of that new beginning which he termed as based upon mutual interest and mutual respect. “And, one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”, he added. It is very interesting to note that the entire thesis of Benazir’s book per se too advocates such sentiments. President Obama then suggested that the sources of tensions between the two parties should not be ignored in fact they must be faced squarely. He went on to speak very clearly and plainly on those specific issues – seven of them in all – that contribute largely to the tensions between the West and Islam. Those issues were limited to the following only: Violent extremism, Israeli-Palestinian issue, Nuclear Proliferation, Democracy, Religious freedom, Women’s rights, and Economic development and opportunity. Under the issue number one above, he did discuss the Afghanistan war, which he described as a war imposed on the United States as a result of the terrorist attack of 9/11. “So it was not a war of choice rather of necessity”, he remarked. However, in case of Iraq he did admit it was a war of choice and also added that it also provoked strong differences in the United States and around the world. In addition to the sources of tension pin-pointed by President Obama in his speech, Benazir’s book deals with several other issues too that have become, over the years, the sources of constant tension and friction between the West (United States in particular) and the Muslim nation. She has cited examples of the American (especially from the CIA) interference in various Muslim-majority countries and in many cases, has presented historical accounts of more than a century. Toppling of Mosadegh’s democratic government in Iran in 1953 and lending supports to the dictators around the world, against the will of the people, have been cited as some of the examples to substantiate.
Towards the end of his speech President Obama lays out his plans and visions for bettering the relations between Muslims and the West. He stipulates that on education, he would work to expand exchange programs and increase scholarships, like the one that brought his father to America. At the same, he intends to encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities. He also mentioned that he would match promising Muslim students with internships in America invest in on-line learning for teachers and students around the world and create a new on-line network so a teenager in Kansas could communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo. On economic development, he suggested to create a new Corps of Business Volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries. On science & technology, he indicated to launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create jobs. He also emphasized that all of these must be done in partnership. In order to advance the cause of reconciliation between the West and Muslim nation, Benazir Bhutto proposes some out-of-the-box recommendations. They are: Marshall Plan type model for the Muslim world by the countries of North America, Europe, Australia, China, and Japan. She proposed yet another innovative idea that could help to restore communication, trust, and dialogue between the Muslim world and the West – and that would be the creation of a “Reconciliation Corps” to be modeled on the Peace Corps. It would be made up of Muslims from the Western societies who have been economically, socially, and politically integrated into the life of their host countries while maintaining their Islamic character.
It is important to mention here that Benazir, in her book per se, has attempted to trace the roots, causes and potential solutions to the crisis within the Muslim world and the crisis between the Muslim world and the West. According to her thesis, theology, history, economics, democracy, and dictatorship have all played significant roles in bringing the world to this crossroads. She states that her premise from the beginning, on this predicament, has been that extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness. She further adds that the extremist threat within the Islamic world and between the Islamic world and the West can be solved, but it will require addressing all the factors that breed it. It is quite a coincidence that whatever Benazir wrote in her last book vis-à-vis the sources of tension between Islam and the West and to that extension about the reconciliation between the two, in fact were basically the corner stone of the historic speech of President Obama. This then enforces the point that what President Obama said in Cairo, Benazir Bhutto wrote in her last book.