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Obama's Cairo Speech: An Imperfect but Well-Executed First Step

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On the whole, I give Barack Obama's speech to "the Muslim World" (I'm trying to channel Ebert here), an enthusiastic thumb up.  Sure, there are specific portions that require some scrutiny (more on that later), but the speech was well executed on a number of fronts.

  • It acknowledged past injustice and current tension between Muslim nations and the U.S.
  • It showed value and appreciation for Muslim literature, science, and religion
  • It avoided ethnocentrism and showed an engagement with Muslim religion with several quotes from the Koran
  • It rejected the argument that Muslim interests were necessarily at odds with U.S. interests
  • It acknowledged the diversity in the Muslim world
  • It focused on commonalities between the major religions
  • It identified and honestly (albeit briefly) discussed seven different sources of tension, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. relations with Iran, and women's rights.


More than anything, however, Obama presented the United States as a partner, not an enforcer -- a sharp departure from both the rhetoric and the tone usually used by the previous administration. 

Obama pledged a fresh start, and, to me at least, it came off as genuine. Between his father's background and his own time in Indonesia, I got the sense that Obama believed his own words about valuing Islam and understanding that, like Christianity, it contains complexities and contradictions that allow different interpretations.  It's a well-documented psychological phenomenon that we tend to see our own group as diverse and heterogeneous and out-groups as "all alike".  Though he emphasized that he himself was Christian, Obama, in my (admittedly non-Muslim) eyes, managed to soften the usual hard boundary between Islam and outsiders. Well done, Mr. President.

Are there nitpicks?  Sure there are.

  • He referred to the war in Iraq as a "war of choice" (as opposed to one of "necessity") but stopped short of saying that it was the "wrong" choice or at least a "regrettable" one.
  • He talked again about closing Guantanamo and prohibiting the use of torture in the United States, without condemning or, at the very least, expressing regret about what was done under the Bush administration.
  • He promised to use diplomacy and build international consensus without acknowledging that the United States, under Bush, acted with seeming disregard for international, much less Muslim opinion.
  • In talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Obama insisted on a two-State solution and pledged to devote all the patience necessary to bring that goal to fruition. In so doing, he acknowledged the injustices experienced by both Jews and Palestinians.  However, though he justly condemned the Palestinian use of violence, his only words about Gaza were "the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security.

Obama's supporters will say that the omissions were by design, to keep the focus positive and optimistic, to pave the way for moving forward. I say, fine, but moving forward also requires truth and acknowledgement of past injustices.

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Obama's critics will say that words are all well and good, but that the President and the United States must show that they are willing to "walk the walk".  Point taken.  Without action to back them up, words such as these will have little worth.  I hope this administration can follow through.  It absolutely must, no matter how slow or difficult the going.

For now, though, the words in this speech are significant indeed.  Speeches are part of our public record.  Sure, there is an element of impression management involved, but Obama's speechwriters also understand that he will be judged against his words in the future, not only during the still far away 2012 election, but every day, in every Nation, from this day forward.  As such, speeches often represent real policy priorities, as well as the administration's true attitudes.  This is not a speech Obama's predecessor could have or would have made.  And that means something!

Back during the Presidential campaign, I wrote:  

It's tempting to dismiss talk as just "talk", but talking is also a form of behavior. What we choose to say says something important about who we are. If you listen carefully to Obama's speeches, there is empathy there that you just don't hear very often at this level of politics. Not promises (those can and will get broken), not sympathy (who among us doesn't feel sad for the families who lost loved ones in Iraq?) but genuine empathy (defined as emotionally putting yourself in the place of another) for a variety of different people across many different demographic lines.


I believe that about this speech too.  Well done, Mr. President.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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I guess you cannot expect from a politician more t... by Mark Sashine on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 12:05:51 PM
Yes words are significant.  So perhaps you co... by GL Rowsey on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 12:44:34 PM
The full text of the speech is on the OEN front pa... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 12:54:52 PM
You were right.  There's no occurrence of... by GL Rowsey on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 1:49:27 PM
The omission of the UN did not strike just... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 2:32:33 PM
In none of the days he's seen fit to address f... by GL Rowsey on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 5:34:27 PM
If Obama didn't mention the illegal Israeli oc... by Sean Fenley on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 3:48:12 PM
Check out how Israelis in the street react to Obam... by Mac McKinney on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 4:06:45 PM
Those kids aren't reacting to Obama's speech. The... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 10:34:03 PM
Actually, the reaction was to the anticipated spee... by Mac McKinney on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 10:50:01 PM
Mac, thanks for taking the time to respond. I a... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 11:34:44 PM
I try to differentiate between the country of Isra... by Mac McKinney on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 12:44:43 AM
Basically he said all the things he needed to say ... by richard on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 5:30:58 PM
Would have been an excellent opportunity to praise... by Dan Bryan on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 8:48:56 PM
And all can have some truth.  There are times... by sometimes blinded on Thursday, Jun 4, 2009 at 11:37:02 PM
They can be referred to by leaders of other nation... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 8:11:46 AM
First of all, I don’t think that too much cr... by Mary Wentworth on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 8:47:39 AM
I'm very sure the Muslims whose trust Obama wants,... by John H Kennedy on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 10:58:29 AM
The war in Iraq absolutely WAS a "war of choi... by sketchartist on Friday, Jun 5, 2009 at 3:24:50 PM