Thursday, June 04, 2009

Two to Tango

The motto of the school I attended in the 1960s was: “Deeds, Not Words.” Our principal, a no-nonsense New Zealander, had the annoying habit of drilling this message into us at every opportunity. We bitterly resented him for it but with time and experience came to recognize that this was a tough but good tenet to live by.

I thought of this while listening to President Barack Hussein Obama’s address to Muslims from Cairo. It was a stirring speech, delivered with poise and flair, but that was expected from this wordsmith and orator. The pressing question is: Can Obama match his words with deeds?

The president anticipated this challenge: “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people,” he said. “These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead, and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

With that as context, let’s try to understand the specific issues the president identified in his speech. The issues are meaningful not only in and of themselves but also in the order in which they were presented.

One would have thought that at the top of the list would be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That the president chose, instead, to begin with the issue of “violent extremism in all its forms” is significant. By doing so he is challenging Muslims to reject and defeat the minority of extremists among us. He is also subtly suggesting that these extremists pose a greater danger to world peace, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere, than the Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Having framed his worldview thus, the president then takes up the “situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.” While reiterating America’s strong bonds with Israel and the fundamental right of that nation to live in peace and security, the president gave equal credence to Palestinian aspirations for a homeland. But how does an independent nation of Palestine come about? “Palestinians must abandon violence … Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build.”

These are tough words. The president is saying that it is easy to destroy, to be trapped in the past, to be driven solely by revenge. Why not learn from history and try the non-violent and the moral high ground approaches to achieving your goals? The president is saying that for far too long, Palestinian leadership and the Arab world have used Palestinians as pawns for power and self-aggrandizement.

“At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. By using the word “Palestine,” Obama is saying that an independent nation for Palestinians will be a cornerstone of American foreign policy. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

But the real issue here is not Palestinian but Israeli leadership. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to even utter the words “two-state solution” during his recent meeting with Obama in the White House. Can the Israeli leader, obsessed with trumped-up threats from Iran, be forced to deal with the issue of Palestinians who “endure daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation?”

The last U.S. president who spoke forcefully for Palestinian rights during office was Jimmy Carter. He was also a one-term president. Things have changed since Carter’s time, however. There is more awareness about the plight of the Palestinians in America now than there was three decades ago. Obama also has a more powerful mandate than Carter to bring lasting changes to the Middle East and probably more clout with Israel, with Hillary Clinton firmly by his side.

The irony is that all U.S. presidents become ardent supporters of Palestinians when they become ex-presidents. Jimmy Carter found out the hard way what happens when this trend is broken. And yet, if any president can be a catalyst for change in the Middle East, it is Barack Obama. In the wake of the speech, the world will keenly observe how the president plays his hand in helping to create a separate homeland for Palestinians. There is only one criterion here: Deeds, Not Words.

On nuclear weapons, Obama was mostly addressing Iran. He repeated his offer to negotiate with Iran without preconditions. But what about the fact that Israel has one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world? The president referred to it subtly and suggested this somewhat Utopian solution: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons and others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.”

Obama also touched on democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights, and economic development and opportunity, in each case hinting at the lack of these values in many Muslim-majority countries, while admitting that the United States was also deficient in them.

The president broke new ground by quoting from the Quran three times:
“Be conscious of God and always speak the truth.” (33:70)
“Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.” (5:32), and
"O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another." (49:13)

I chuckled when Obama mispronounced “hijab” as “hajib.” A distraction was his mix of pronunciations: “Izlam” as well as “Islam” and “Mozlem” as well as “Muslim.” A request from a citizen: Please, Mr. President, talk about “Islam” and “Muslim” when you need to, not “Izlam” and “Mozlem.”

In lauding the achievement of American Muslims, he talked about those who excelled in our sports arenas (Obama did not name names but it is easy to guess: Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jababr, Ahmad Rashad, and many more), won Nobel Prize (reference to Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry), built our tallest building (Fazlur Rahman Khan, Bangladeshi-American structural engineer, considered "the greatest structural engineer of the second half of the 20th century" for his constructions of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center), and lit the Olympic Torch (again, Muhammad Ali).

The president inspired hope in most of his listeners that a better and more peaceful world is a distinct possibility, now that he is at the helm of the most powerful nation on earth. It is no longer "either you're with us or you're against us" but "mutual respect and mutual interests."

It is by no means certain that Obama can deliver on the promises he has made in his Cairo speech. But by the vision he has articulated and the challenges he has undertaken, surely he deserves the gratitude not just of Muslims but of all those who have the “courage to make a new beginning,” and thus strengthened, “to make the world we seek.”

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