It is difficult to mark the passage which Obama’s words in Cairo meant for America. The last 8 years have been characterized by a foolish Christian foreign policy, etched in the words of Bush about “crusades” and in the aggression and torture of two wars. In their place, Obama, as a multiracial person, recognized and celebrated the great spiritual and cultural contributions of a billion people, the followers of Islam. Anti-Arab racism is the cutting edge of racism in America today. In a paroxysm of bigotry, such luminaries as the political scientist and national security advisor Samuel P. Huntington and the journalist Thomas Friedman ignorantly deny Arabs are capable of toleration and pluralism. Against such voices, Obama spoke out forcefully about the contributions of the Arabs in bringing advanced civilization to Europe:
“As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam. It was Islam – at places like Al-Azhar University – that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”
Obama stressed historic toleration in the great Islamic empires, the califate in Cordoba, and one might add, the Moghals in India and even the Ottomans. Religious freedom was the theme of his speech. I have taught courses in Granada in Spain, the setting of the Alhambra, on the civilization of the Arab conquest, tolerant of other peoples of the “book”, Jewish and Catholic (see Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, for a great book on this theme). The Arabs had conquered North Afrcia and Southern Europe, As a minority, they could rule others successfully, intelligently and decently only through toleration. Great Catholic rulers like Alfonso the wise and Pedro the cruel learned from them and tolerated Muslims and Jews. Sadly, the Pope initiated the Dark Ages of the Reconquista by launching the Inquisition and burning people, even teenage Jews, at the stake. Obama’s lines thus recognize what is great in the history of the Arabs. (It is sadly no accident that the New York Times, despite a broadly favorable account, edited these sections out of Obama’s speech yesterday. Even the new President of the United States, when he speaks from the heart, can not quite be heard in the “paper of record”).
Obama spoke as a person of Muslim heritage on his father’s side, of his experience in living with Muslims as a boy in Indonesia. Emphasizing the American value of religious toleration (the First Amendment), he invoked Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, who is a Muslim and took his oath of office on a Koran from the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson. Despite slavery and genocide toward indigenous people, America is not the country of bigotry. Arabs founded toleration toward peoples “of the Book”, but America, hesitantly, slowly, with great passages of racism, is nonetheless, at its best, built on and extends such toleration. America was founded on the idea of equal freedom of conscience (that one may worship as one will or not, so long as one does not harm others). As Obama put it,
“And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."
"But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one.’”
Obama has resurrected this profound aspect of American decency from the decadence of the recent American police state. He couples this with having put a stop to torture, and planning to close Guantanamo.
This theme was the setting for the great shift represented by the speech. Obama named Palestine as a present reality alongside Israel: a state equally deserving to exist. Emphasizing the genocide toward Jews – he goes on to honor the dead at Buchenwald today - and the indecency of Arab racism, he also named the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslim and Christian – over the past 60 years: “They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Obama’s words refer to deeds. He has made it clear to Israel that growth in the settlements in the occupied territories through which Palestinians are displaced must cease (for any decent solution to be achieved, the settlements must be demolished, the settlers resettled in Israel). On both points, he has taken on the reactionary and racist Israeli government of Netanyahu (Lieberman and the anti-Arab policies even toward Israeli citizens most notably but also the tone characteristic of the anti-Arab racism of the mainstream Israeli parties; Israel is a democracy for Jewish citizens – increasingly less for Arab citizens – but a tyranny in the occupied territories). Obama’s words recognized and even lifted up Arabs. They should also be heartening to all Jews who wish to see a decent, not a rapacious and self-destructive Israeli regime. Obama carefully left the door open to a shift in the direction of decency by the Israeli government.
He also criticized the violence of Hamas and by implication, young Arab suicide bombers who kill themselves while blowing up civilians (such bombers have taken out many more Muslims in Iraq – Shia civilians by Sunni Al-Qaida – than American soldiers). In Israel, bombers who murder children and civilians strengthen the barbarous hand of Netanyahu. In Obama’s words:
“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
But here Obama spoke too easily of nonviolence. Revolutionary violence need not be, as in its parody by today’s “terrorism,” against innocents (George Washington, for example). Further, noble words alone did not make civil rights possible or Obama president. Martin Luther King set the image of nonviolence, extending Gandhi by waging a nonviolent campaign of resistance in the South consistently for 10 years. But King would not have been possible without that great Christian John Brown and his multiracial abolitionists, without the violence of the Civil War. King would not have been successful without Malcolm X coming to support him – suggesting to a racist establishment that if it did not deal with this “brother,” the “other brother” would follow, would be more violent (when King engaged in the Birmingham protests, “lawyer Vann” was the one white in the city establishment who would talk with him). Rebellions in Northern cities also marked the movement. Though the main violence provoking them and in them was murders by racist police, the burning of cities was not nonviolent. In the march to Jackson, King took over the march of the wounded James Meredith; he was accompanied by the Deacons for Self-Defence, an armed group of blacks to protect the marchers against the Klan. There has been a dialectic of violence and nonviolence from below in every nonviolent movement which has succeeded, even though the fall of the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe was produced by a revolutionary situation or cataclysm, and without a King or Gandhi or organized movement (Havel was a great figure but had created no movement), nonetheless by nonviolence.
In contrast, what is true of “terrorism” is that the violence against civilians of suicide bombers helps only the reactionaries on the other side. The murder of innocents is what Palestinians rebel against; that rebellion is corrupted by then murdering innocents.
To his credit, Obama’s speech and actions point the way to a more tolerant and nonviolent way of resolving these differences. We live in a fragile world, threatened by American wars and global warming, among other matters. One might number the likely years until human extinction of continuing the Bush policies as perhaps one or two hundred. The peoples of the world must find a way to overthrow injustice without massive slaughter; through all kinds of pressure including mass nonviolent resistance, we must force the oppressors to change. But what Obama represents is a dramatic shift in policies, one which cannot be sustained or developed further without mass pressure to make Obama be Obama, as I put it in campaigning for him (the pressures of American capitalist, financial and military interests are great), but one which Obama’s words almost palpably conjured.
Obama spoke to young people, Arab and also Jewish (there are many in Israel drawn to reaction and anti-Arab racism, just now). He spoke of the hope of toleration in the words of great religions. He spoke of living in the present, of seizing the moment (the fierce urgency of now, in his campaign), or as he put it in Cairo, “all of us share this world for only a brief moment in time.” He has a sense that his words and actions are doing something of great significance and that they can move others to do so as well: others who might forge democracy and decency in an Arab world, including the Egypt in which he spoke. For through American military aid and repression, Egypt’s dictator Mubarak has sought to deny them. Others who might forge decency in Israel. Obama spoke for a new start.
Obama had the ambition to become the leader of the American empire. The enactment of his vision is hampered by a bizarre finance capitalism which has collapsed and brought down the world economy with it as well as an empire of some 800 military bases, extended by aggressive wars (see Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire). Of course, such a person could not have been elected without these disasters, proving before the eyes even of the blind the moral bankruptcy of the previous Republican regime and its Democratic abettors. Obama seeks to negotiate with Iran, also a high point of the speech, acknowledging their right to peaceful uses of nuclear power and offering a fresh approach. He even took responsibility for the CIA coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh regime in 1954, while warning about nuclear weapons, especially the potential for a new Middle Eastern nuclear arms race (As American President, he understated the role of Israel’s nuclear weapons here; it has, in fact, been a one-sided race). He said that he did not wish American forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only to stop Al-Qaida. Here the danger of the American empire and Obama’s role as the leader of it, riding as it were an untamed stallion, are at their greatest. These wars may bring down Obama’s Presidency or frustrate its promise. But even here, he gave hope that with local action against Al-Qaida, he might back off. No President can remake the empire, or make it unoppressive for the large numbers of people harmed by it (the depression has worsened the circumstances of the half the world’s population – 2.8 billion – who had lived, according to the World Bank, on an income of under $2 per day). Hopes that Obama would speak out as a radical – he is the American President – are misplaced. But this President has already shifted America to fighting against global warming, to working for a green economy, for a renewed productivity based on green energy, and for some limit to finance capitalism and its current catastrophes. This President has spoken out for toleration and acted for it, reversing the most tremendously destructive aspects of Bush policy, not just torture, but its mad, undifferentiated “war on terror” (the word terrorist did not appear in the speech and the “war on terror “is gone from the administration’s lexicon). He spoke for toleration for women who choose to wear the hijab, but rightly criticized the denial of education to women (his words echo those of Ibn-Rusd, commenting on Plato’s Republic in Cordoba in the 13th century, that the subjection of women, their treatment as “plants” already made the Arab regimes poor). This President hailed Arab civilization and the Palestinians. As Andrew Sullivan said nearly two years ago at the beginning of Obama’s campaign, imagine if this were the voice of America to the millions of Muslims. Imagine if this voice, from the heart, could lift us all (including the Christians trying to colonize and take over the American military) to work for toleration and decency. These were words of decency and respect. Lincoln spoke such words. Until Obama appeared on the scene, I would not have imagined a modern American President speaking them. Obama deserves our admiration.