Since I watched it this morning, I’ve been trying to make better sense of Obama’s—to my mind, extraordinary—address to the Muslim world. As I had hoped, the President chose not to avoid some of the most divisive elements of the United States’ relationship to Islam, but rather to engage them—laying out an honest, straightforward history of the Middle East and American policy there. I was especially struck by the parallel emphasis he placed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, offering vivid historical images to depict both the hardship of Palestinian occupation and the horror of the Jewish holocaust.
Hopefully, this speech merely acts as a prelude—a rhetorical introduction to more tangible changes in America’s Middle East policy. After almost six years of war in Iraq coupled with increasing tensions between Israel and her neighbors, much of the Muslim world has reacted with legitimate skepticism and impatience towards Obama’s overture. Clearly, there is a desire for the eloquence to be supplemented with action.
Nonetheless, I am optimistic that today’s address could serve the immediate purpose of positively altering the political dialogue in the Middle East, especially regarding the American relationship with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By offering a more conciliatory and balanced tenor in his foreign policy—yet without disavowing the American commitment to Israel—the President has a real opportunity to empower the region’s moderates and foster a more temperate political discourse.
Just take a look at the varying responses Obama received among these students from Middle East:
Sulafah Al Shami, Jordan
But what was surprising to me is that despite the fact that President Obama continued to make references to American and Israeli history, he overlooked the fact that Palestine does have a history which includes decades of Israeli occupation and terror. A two-state solution seems realistic and reasonable but I believe that saying Israel has ‘legitimate aspirations’ isn’t really accurate.
Ingy Hassieb, Egypt
As an Egyptian, I am, location-wise, really close to the conflict, and as a human being, I see that Israeli actions are a violation of the sovereignty of another people and another state. However, I agree with the U.S president, there must be compromise and there must be sacrifice, as much as I would like to see Palestinians living freely within their own land, it does seem that a two-state solution is the best option, but both sides must be willing to compromise in order to achieve peace.
Samura Atallah, Jordan
Obama’s position on the Israeli-Arab conflict was moderate and tailored to both sides; a child, whether Palestinian or Israeli, has every right to a decent life. The two-state solution and pushing to stop the ongoing settlements was a substantial point, one that is yet novel to Palestinians in regards to recent U.S. foreign policy. I think this strongly illustrates the likelihood of peacemaking.
Tarek Hefni, Egypt
I did not feel very comfortable regarding the two state solution and regarding treating the Holocaust as a fact. It is still a debatable issue and should not be taken as granted.
I admit a genocide has taken place! That’s a fact. However, the numbers are really doubtful. I also don’t see any relevance between people being killed by other nation and building a homeland in a different land.
As these quotations gathered by the New York Times demonstrate, there is actually a widely diverse range of opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Without question, Muslim sympathy for Palestinian refugees far outweighs the regard for Israelis; in fact, many commentators voiced serious criticism for Obama’s reluctance to criticize Israel with more severity. Nonetheless, the issue of how peace can be achieved elicits a variety of results, ranging from assertive dismissals of the Holocaust to more temperate calls for Arab sacrifice.
One of the most unfortunate byproducts of George W Bush’s absolutist policy on terrorism (and Israel) was an imbalanced political discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Between the war in Iraq and the White House’s unconditional support of Israel, the “nefarious Zionist-American alliance” perception, for better or worse, gained more credibility. Any nuance to the debate on America’s role in Middle East conflict disappeared within the new, heated dichotomy of US/Israel vs. Islam: moral righteousness overtook political responsibility; emotion overtook pragmatic concerns; passionate anger overtook serious dialogue.
In part, this address sought to disassemble some of that political fervor and challenge Muslims with a different, more accessible, image of America. By engaging the language of both the Israeli and Palestinian plight, Obama is essentially—to lift a phrase the President recently used—holding a mirror to the Muslim World, asking that its people re-examine their established views toward the United States. In demonstrating an admirable knowledge of Islamic history and genuine sympathy for Palestinian suffering, Obama sought to re-define the American role in the region and pre-empt any attempts to place him within the “US/Israel vs. Islam” dynamic.
It’s essential to recognize this is a first step—a mere articulation of a new American relationship to the Middle East that remains a work in progress. Much of the Muslim world remains eager, even impatient, for tangibly different policies to emanate from Washington. Nonetheless, this speech was a critical preliminary step for Obama. As the President establishes a new Middle East policy, his capable recitation of Koranic passages and frank discussion of the Israeli- Palestinian debate will challenge his opponents’ attempts to caste him as yet another greedy Zionist American.
Tomorrow the editorial pages of Arab, Persian and Israeli newspapers will likely offer varying, often contradictory, reactions to Obama’s speech: some will demand a stronger renunciation of America’s relationship with Israel; others will cite the Presidential address to question the efficacy of Hamas’ violent tactics; still more will fall somewhere in between. However, with an American statesman willing to speak with such unprecedented honesty, an undoubtedly more constructive dialogue will emerge not only with the Muslim world, but within it.