Going to Cairo

Three Responses to Obama’s Cairo Speech.

Indispensable Man

By Bernard Avishai

Immediately after President Obama’s speech, Israeli television interviewed a strapping West Bank settler: “It was very professional,” he said, “very well crafted. It focused brilliantly on the rights of man. But he also quoted the Talmud; and if he read that, then he knows that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.”

This curious response suggests why, yet again, Obama’s instincts are better than mine.

You see, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of people like this. In the end they will have to be confronted. But though the end cannot be allowed to seem far away, the end is not the beginning. Why push people into a corner before showing them the corner – before showing them also the people who will be pushing with you? Why not take things in their natural sequence which allows everybody to adjust to the new reality?

Obama’s problem, however, was that if he didn’t do something dramatic, he ran the risk of losing the people he would need for his coalition even before he began to rally them–because so many presidents have made promises in the past (condemned settlements, called for a two-state solution) and then remembered something better they had to do. Obama, I thought, should not miss this chance to issue some concrete warning or present the elements of a concrete plan – something vivid to stand for the sincerity of his intention – to reassure people who had heard it all before, especially the people in the streets from Casablanca to Islamabad, who were after all the point of the exercise.

Of course there was another way to prove his sincerity, which hadn’t really occurred to me. It was to frame the whole problem in such a subtle and honest – and vivid – way that nobody hearing the speech could doubt his sincerity; to go meta on the problem and make his intentions clear to anyone (that settler included, obviously) without needing to make threats or draw up plans. (The final deal is obvious, anyway.)

And it was foolish of me not to anticipate this solution, since this is exactly what he did with his speech on race. Obama is many things, but I’m coming to understand that he is, almost more than anything else, a natural teacher. He knows how to start from where his audience is and connect the dots. He knows the ring of truth. (Just to be sure, I called a couple of Palestinian friends who were skeptical when Obama was elected. They were deeply impressed – certainly enough to stay in the “process.”)

The speech did have a few innovations, moreover, which were moving in the elegant way they broke taboos. Obama not only spoke about the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but did so in a way that laid the ground for eventually getting nuclear weapons out of the entire region, Israel included. He plausibly linked the toppling of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 with the kidnapping of American diplomats in 1979. He spoke of human rights and the rule of law in Egypt without appearing to undermine Mubarak. Obama said in a way that could not have offended Jews that the holocaust engendered a tragic injustice for the Palestinians. Finally, and most important, he made the justice of a Palestinian state seem an American interest without denying unbreakable links to Israel, that is, the state Israel would be once a deal is done.

It is a little frightening how indispensable this man is becoming.

Patriarchy Time

By Muriel Gray

Islam and the West. This was always going to be the tricky one. President Obama’s action on domestic policies has so far been in line with his pre-election promises, and it’s all rather exciting. We forgave him his vagueness about how to deal with Bush’s legacy on “the war on terror” because he needed time to do the big thinking it requires. Well, time’s up, and out it came, outlined in his Cairo speech on Thursday.

The big idea, unprecedented in any other US administration, is that Obama will end the previously unconditional support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, that America will no longer look the other way when civilians are being slaughtered and human rights abused, and that the Palestinians must have their own state. It was cautiously worded but deeply significant, and about time too, marking an astonishing turnaround for United States policy and a tough, genuine commitment to brokering peace.

But the rest of the speech? What new creative solutions were on offer to reconcile the directly opposing ideologies that are obedience to Islam and progressive Western democracy? No big thinking of any kind. Actually, worse than that. A speech so patronizing it read as though beamed by some unworldly school chaplain back from Scripture Union camp in the Holy Land.

Talking from Cairo, the president celebrated that Al-Azhar and Cairo Universities have been “a source of Egypt’s advancement,” representing the “harmony between tradition and progress”.

I want my money back from the travel agent. Because the last time I visited the place that claimed to be Egypt, it was a third-world shambles “advancing” into medievalism, its women hideously oppressed and its people poverty-stricken and under-educated under a corrupt, police state. Clearly I was in the wrong country. No matter. Perhaps Obama’s disingenuous ego-massaging of his hosts was just part of etiquette. But it didn’t stop.

Obama informed us that throughout history, “Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.” Hasn’t it just? Darfur was all a silly misunderstanding, and Sunni and Shia Muslims tolerate each other magnificently. Islam also, the president assured us, overlaps and shares common principles with America, namely the “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Many of these can currently be seen on view in Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan, to name but a very few.

There is also “astonishing progress” in some Islamic states where “there need not be a contradiction between development and tradition.” Here the president cites as one shining example the city of Dubai. Would that be the same Dubai as that Babylonian, environmental nightmare, built for the pleasure of those blind to both social justice and aesthetics, on the back of slave labor that makes the pyramid-building pharaohs look like equal opportunity employers?

Barack Obama is a highly intelligent man. Why such placatory nonsense? Does he think this empty flattery of an Islamic world in turmoil will wash?

Back in January we could hardly wait to hear his solutions to this increasing problem, not just of high-profile terrorism but of the more mundane matter of fractured communities throughout the world, pulled apart, as usual, by religion. How depressing to find that his solution is not about humans, our conduct and progress, but about “inter-faith dialogues” and, of course, God. America still regards humanity as one big worshipping congregation, who just have to sort out which supernatural being we pray to, and how to best “respect” each other’s various superstitions. This is hardly progress. But what to do?

The US, along with its “Western allies, could of course withdraw completely from any involvement with countries abusing human rights, Islamic or otherwise. That would require an end to both honorable economic involvement, such as aid and investment, and dishonorable covert interference such as propping up favorable administrations.

But none of that is possible or desirable (except for ending covert manipulation) and not just because of all that lovely oil that America needs to keep the pick-ups revving. This is a small planet. The perfect storm is coming. We need to get on together, and we need to find a way to do it quickly.

Surely the boldest way forward is to tell the uncomfortable truth instead of obsequious fawning. In the wake of Bush’s vandalism, the West needs to declare its crimes and misdemeanors and make amends, but so too does the Islamic world. Islam must endure the same bumpy reformation that ironed out Christianity’s primitive elements, and it will require honesty to support it to do so.

By far the greatest disappointment was Obama’s “dealing” with women’s rights as lowly point number six in his speech. In a few short sentences he referred, rightly, to the importance of educating Muslim women, then bizarrely to the importance of keeping American citizens in their hijabs.

Then, without any hint of satire, he cited the fact that Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia had elected senior women politicians and leaders without mentioning how the rest of the female population live in those countries.

No mention of the shameful atrocities being carried out worldwide in Islamic countries every single day; nothing of injustice and hopelessness, of the drudgery, powerlessness and virtual enslavement suffered by millions of women and girls in the name of an invented deity.

To so sure-footedly ignore what is happening to women right now is nothing short of a disgrace, and his appeasement of this outrage is on a par with appeasing apartheid.

Many hoped the end of Bush would mean the end of God-dictated foreign policy, and if Obama’s religiosity is getting in the way of his finer ideals it would be one of the greatest tragedies of the century, given that he is a good and clever man.

He finished this depressingly sycophantic speech with quotes from The Bible, The Koran and The Torah.

How about one from Nietzsche, Mr President? “Faith means not wanting to know what is true.”

Originally published in Scottland’s Sunday Herald newspaper.

The Tone and the Music

By Uri Avnery

One man spoke to the world, and the world listened.

He walked onto the stage in Cairo, alone, without hosts and without aides, and delivered a sermon to an audience of billions. Egyptians and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, Copts and Maronites – and they all listened attentively.

He unfolded before them the map of a new world, a different world, whose values and laws he spelled out in simple and clear language – a mixture of idealism and practical politics, vision and pragmatism.

Barack Hussein Obama – as he took pains to call himself – is the most powerful man on earth. Every word he utters is a political fact.

“A historic speech,” pronounced commentators in a hundred languages. I prefer another adjective:

The speech was right.

Every word was in its place, every sentence precise, every tone in harmony. The masterpiece of a man bringing a new message to the world.

From the very first word, every listener in the hall and in the world felt the honesty of the man, that his heart and his tongue were in harmony, that this is not a politician of the old familiar sort – hypocritical, sanctimonious, calculating. His body language was speaking, and so were his facial expressions

That’s why the speech was so important. The new moral integrity and the sense of honesty increased the impact of the revolutionary content.

AND A REVOLUTIONARY speech it certainly was.

In 55 minutes, it not only wiped away the eight years of George W. Bush, but also much of the preceding decades, from World War II on.

The American ship has turned – not with the sluggishness everyone would have expected, but with the agility of a speedboat.

That is much more than a political change. It touches the roots of the American national consciousness. The President spoke to hundreds of million US citizens no less than to a billion Muslims.

The American culture is based on the myth of the Wild West, with its Good Guys and Bad Guys, violent justice, dueling under the midday sun. Since the American nation is composed of immigrants from all over the world, its unity seems to require a threatening, world-encompassing evil enemy, like the Nazis and the Japs, or the Commies. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, this role was taken over by Islam.

Cruel, fanatical, bloodthirsty Islam; Islam as the religion of murder and destruction; an Islam lusting for the blood of women and children. This enemy captured the imagination of the masses and supplied material for television and cinema. It provided lecture topics for learned professors and fresh inspiration for popular writers. The White House was occupied by a moron who declared a world-wide “War on Terrorism.”

When Obama is now uprooting this myth, he is revolutionizing American culture. He wipes away the picture of one enemy, without painting another in its place. He preaches against the violent, adversary attitude itself, and starts to work to replace it with a culture of partnership between nations, civilizations and religions.

I see Obama as the first great messenger of the 21st century. He is the son of a new era, where the economy is global and the whole of humanity faces the danger to the very existence of life on the planet Earth. An era where the Internet connects a boy in New Zealand with a girl in Namibia in real time, where a disease in a small Mexican village spreads all over the globe within days.

This world needs a world law, a world order, a world democracy. That’s why this speech really was historic: Obama outlined the basic contours of a world constitution.

While OBama proclaims the 21st century, the government of Israel is returning to the 19th.

That was the century when a narrow, egocentric, aggressive nationalism took root in many countries. A century that sanctified the belligerent nation which oppresses minorities and subdues neighbors. The century that gave birth to modern anti-Semitism and to its response – modern Zionism.

Obama’s vision is not anti-national. He spoke with pride about the American nation. But his nationalism is of another sort: an inclusive, multi-cultural and non-sexist nationalism, which includes all the citizens of a country and respects other nations.

This is the nationalism of the 21st century, which is inexorably striving towards supranational, regional and world-wide structures.

Compared to this, how miserable is the mental world of the Israeli Right! How miserable is the violent, fanatical-religious world of the settlers, the chauvinist ghetto of Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak, the racist-fascist closed-in world of their Kahanist allies!

One has to understand this moral and spiritual dimension of Obama’s speech before considering its political implications. Not only in the political sphere are Obama and Netanyahu on a collision course. The underlying collision is between two mental worlds which are as distinct from each other as the sun and the moon.

In Obama’s mental world, there is no place for the Israeli Right or its equivalents elsewhere. Not for their terminology, not for their “values”, and still less for their actions.

In the political sphere, too, a huge gap has opened up between the governments of Israel and the USA.

During the last few years, successive Israeli governments have ridden the wave of Islamophobia that has spread throughout the West. The Islamic world was considered the deadly enemy, America was galloping grimly towards the Clash of Civilizations, every Muslim was a potential terrorist.

Israel’s right-wing leaders could rejoice. After all, the Palestinians are Arabs, the Arabs are Muslims, the Muslims are Terrorists – so that Israel was assured a central place in the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.

That was a Garden of Eden for racist demagogues. Avigdor Lieberman could advocate the expulsion of the Arabs from Israel, Ellie Yishai could enact laws for the revocation of the citizenship of non-Jews. Obscure Members of the Knesset could grab headlines with bills that might have been conceived in Nuremberg.

This Garden of Eden is no more. Whether the implications will become clear quickly or slowly – the direction is obvious. If we continue on our path, we will become a leper colony.

The tone makes the music – and this applies also to the President’s words on Israel and Palestine. He spoke at length about the Holocaust – honest and courageous words, full of empathy and compassion, which were received by the Egyptians in silence but with respect. He stressed Israel’s right to exist. And without pausing, he spoke about the suffering of the Palestinian refugees, the intolerable situation of the Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own.

He spoke respectfully about Hamas. Not anymore as a “terrorist organization”, but as a part of the Palestinian people. He demanded that they recognize Israel and stop violence, but also hinted that he would welcome a Palestinian unity government.

The political message was clear and unequivocal: the Two-State Solution will be put into practice. He himself will see to that. Settlement activity must cease. Unlike his predecessors, he did not stop at speaking about “Palestinians,” but uttered the decisive word: “Palestine” – the name of a state and a territory.

And no less important: the Iran war has been struck from the agenda. The dialogue with Tehran, as a part of the new world, is not limited in time. As from now, no one can even dream about an American OK for an Israeli attack.

How did official Israel respond? The first reaction was denial. “An unimportant speech.” “There was nothing new.” The establishment commentators picked out a few pro-Israeli sentences from the text and ignored all the others. And after all, “these are just words. So he talked. Nothing will come out of it.”

That is nonsense. The words of the President of the United States are more than just words. They are political facts. They change the perceptions of hundreds of millions. The Muslim public listened. The American public listened. It may take some time for the message to sink in. But after this speech, the pro-Israel lobby will never be the same as it was before. The era of “foile shtik” (Yiddish for sneaky tricks) is over. The sly dishonesty of a Shimon Peres, the guileful deceits of an Ehud Olmert, the sweet talking of a Bibi Netanyahu – all these belong to the past.

The Israeli people must now decide: whether to follow the right-wing government towards an inevitable collision with Washington, as the Jews did 1940 years ago when they followed the Zealots into a suicidal war on Rome – or to join Obama’s march towards a new world.

From June, 2009

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