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Last week, President Barack Obama was in Cairo, Egypt to give a speech that his administration billed as an appeal to a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world. It did not disappoint.
It’s often said in politics that when you make people on both sides of an issue angry, you must be doing something right. His speech before a prominent Egyptian audience was broadcast live around much of the Arab world. It included remarks that would please both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a lot that would anger both sides. That’s how good and on target it was.
The speech was basically two parts: one that addressed relations between Americans and Muslims worldwide, and one that expressed Obama’s policies for easing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The president made it clear that Americans and Muslims mustn’t accept stereotypical views of each other. Not every Muslim is a terrorist and America is not the Great Satan that Islamic extremists paint us to be. Any new common ground has to be based on that understanding.
Obama didn’t hesitate to insist that democracy is a better system than the kingdoms and the one-party states that rule much of the Islamic world. He also promoted women’s rights, a sticking point in a religion that seems to work so hard to make women second-class citizens.
He made it clear that no amount of rationalization can justify the terrorist attacks against this country in 2001, and defended the war in Afghanistan as a means to preventing further terrorist attacks.
He called the Iraq war a war of “choice,” meaning of course that it was a wrong choice made by the previous president, and he added that it not only divided the Muslim world but divided America, too, a clear reference to his own opposition to it. The message was obvious: we will no longer attack any country that hasn’t attacked us.
He reprimanded those who would deny the Holocaust, even calling that point of view “ignorant,” but also stated that the situation of Palestinians under Israeli oppression was “intolerable.” He said both sides should support a two-state solution, and that Muslims should be willing to recognize Israel.
The main thread throughout the speech was a call to seek common ground between the West (although specifically the U.S.) and Muslims. Like any salient observer of the situation post-9/11, Obama knows there’s much mistrust and suspicion to overcome.
The president referred to his personal ties to the Muslim world as an invitation that he can be trusted. He’s a Christian son of a Muslim man who has lived in a Muslim country. If they can’t trust him, well, this country isn’t likely to produce another president with such a background.
Most Americans have long since moved past the “war on terror” mentality that was so cultivated by the last administration. Yes, there are still Muslim extremists who’d like to kill us. But they represent a very tiny fraction of the millions of worldwide Muslims, a number Obama was seeking to reduce further by his speech.
It’s time that both sides tried to reach a consensus, and it’s good that we have a president who thinks he can get that process started. His Cairo speech was a first step in the right direction. Now it will be up to reasonable and moderate voices in the Muslim world to take the same step.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.