After Cairo, a New Era Begins?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"خطاب أوباما.. الرسالة وصلت." The headline of Friday morning's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reads "Obama's Speech.. The Message Arrived." The lead photo shows Palestinian militants watching Obama's speech live the previous morning.
The speech came, the speech went. Here in Morocco, some watched, but many didn't. (It was 10:00am on a work day here when Obama began his address at Cairo University.) The few Moroccans I've asked about it haven't had much to say, and none have raised the topic on their own. Even in Egypt, (likely inflated) government figures indicate that only 55 percent of Egyptians watched or read about the speech.

Were it not for Obama's mention of Morocco, press coverage here might have been non-existent. Even after the President's reference, two of the three local newspapers I picked up the following morning made no mention of the speech. Those local press outlets that swooned at Obama's specific mention of early US-Moroccan relations seemed to miss the larger point of the speech in the process. ("Morocco first nation to have recognized US independence" was the lead headline from the
kingdom's official press agency.) At least one Moroccan blogger got the joke.

At work, I watched the speech over the internet, streamed live from the White House site. I also signed up to receive State Department text message alerts around the speech—a service the government set up to blast out key quotes in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, or English to anyone who signed up online. Just moments before the speech began, I received the first message: "haroldweloveyou". Apparently they were still working out some glitches. Once Obama began speaking, however, I received a brief quote on my phone every ten minutes or so. The State Department was clearly trying hard on this one, but I would be interested to know how many people across the Muslim world actually signed up—maybe a few dozen?

In the speech itself, Obama made some very forward attempts to engage Muslims, and tried to do so in their own vocabulary. He thanked the crowd with a "choukrane" and greeted them with "as-salaamu aleikum", then sprinkled Qur'anic quotes and religious terms in Arabic throughout the speech. The volume of these words made the effort seem a bit forced, like overeager name-dropping, in my eyes, but I wasn't the intended audience.

Muslims' reactions to this diplomatic nicety—as to the speech in general—seem mixed. (The live crowd's response shouldn't be any indication—they were all hand-picked by Mubarak's regime.) Here's a small sampling of responses from the Muslim world that I've come across in the days since Obama's speech:

  • In contrast to the lack of popular reaction I've observed in Morocco, a friend in Damascus reported great enthusiasm among Syrians in the wake of Obama's talk.
  • Al Jazeera's English-language roundup provided a variety of reactions from academics and political elites in the Muslim and Western worlds, while the New York Times offered Egyptian and Jordanian students a space to voice their opinions. The students' reactions made for interesting reading—the tension showed as each one awkwardly tried to reconcile Obama's words with the standard stereotypes, misinformation, and prejudices passed to them from parents and popular culture. The President's tolerant tone and frank treatment of longstanding policy divides appeared to catch many of them off guard.
  • It's not yet clear whether Obama's address represents a watershed moment or a forgettable one for citizens of the Muslim world. Even Hezbollah isn't sure; while preparing its grudging denunciation of Obama's speech, everyone's favorite Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite party published an article (via) parroting an op-ed from Israeli daily Haaretz which called the speech a historic milestone marking the shift from the 9/11 era to one of "a dialogue of cultures."
  • Taking a practical perspective, Moroccan write Laila Lalami concludes that the true test of Obama's message in the Muslim world will be his ability to back up his words with concrete progress—most importantly on the Israel/Palestine issue. His words, she writes, will be judged by his ability to limit continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank: "If he can do that, then this speech will be remembered as a turning point; if he can't, then it will go the way of all the speeches by the previous five administrations: nowhere."

So in the end, Thursday's speech may not have penetrated as deeply as the Obama administration would have liked, it may have received the usual knee-jerk denunciation from the region's sworn enemies of America, and its effects may fade considerably if the US fails to produce some results in the future—particularly in Palestine.

But even the harsher critiques of Obama's speech show thought, and that may be the President's greatest success in Cairo. To have provoked some genuine dialogue, soul-searching, and reflection among Muslims and non-Muslims alike is a victory in itself.

To create is harder than to tear down. One hour of talk, however eloquent or honest, cannot undo eight years of destruction. But if the Obama administration can produce some tangible gains in the coming months, with the help of partners in the Muslim world, the slow creep of his message may grow, and with it, Muslims' willingness to reassess what "America" stands for. Obama has created an opportunity too good to miss.

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