Obama’s Cairo Speech & Islam: Should the poor rejoice?

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4: U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end". (Photo by Getty Images)

I’ve just returned from Asia and, because World Concern works many places in the Islamic world, I listened closely to Obama’s Cairo speech. This morning I was in the middle of writing an email responding to a very conservative critique of the speech when I took a call from our Area Director for Africa. Because of the now uncontested control of Al Shabab in the two major areas of our work, we have had to table any plans for expansion even though the need of the poor increases. We will expand in Somaliland where there is greater stability.

The media report on only a few of the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists, especially if they target Europeans or Americans or involve a suicide bombing. Even more than those who are killed, though, the poor pay the price for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. They may flee their homes in the midst of fighting, as we now see tens of thousands doing in Somalia and Pakistan. They may remain as helping agencies are driven out or required to curtail their work as we are having to do. And they may not even be able to cultivate or harvest a crop. Men and boys who would be working to feed the family are forcefully conscripted into militias. The suffering of the poor is many times greater than those who are violently killed or maimed.

So will Obama’s speech make anything better? The conservative commentary that I read was a resounding “no” for one of these reasons.

1) Saying something does not make it so. Failing to challenge intolerance of other faiths even among non-fundamentalist governments and communities does not protect minorities. Policy differences still remain. Nothing is really different on the ground after the speech than before.

2) Fundamentalists are not going to change their beliefs and practices as a result of the speech because their actions are rooted in an Islamic expression that would discount the words of infidels.

I’ll concede those two points but that does not mean that “words are cheap” or that nothing has changed.

The criticism does not recognize and words and symbols are powerful, not in bringing magical solutions to seemingly intractable problems but in changing the context in which they are seen and discussed. Sure, a speech will not solve all of the contradictions within the doctrine and practice of Islam anymore than a Papal edict would have stopped the IRA until the power of the community had turned against the violence in Ireland. Yes, there is a significant difference between the foundations of Islam and Christianity in how we regard political power and nature of kingdom. Islam is too savvy to embrace grace and such impractical concepts such as loving enemies. The Prophet Mohammed entered Mecca at the head of an army from Medina and triumphed over those who had ignored him earlier, establishing a religious/political reign that has been contested ever since his death. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was killed by his opponents less than a week later, triumphing only through his death and resurrection and establishing a Kingdom of servants.  Islam and Christianity are different at their cores.

Even though words and symbols alone do not change circumstances on the ground nor reconcile true differences between faiths, peoples or nations, I believe in their power in changing the context in which debate and discussion happens. When I meet an obstructive government official who wants a bribe, I will not oppose him but try to include him in solving the problem that he has created. “Let’s see. It does look like we have a problem. How do we manage to solve it.”  That approach has worked more often than not and certainly better than the confrontational approach that drips with judgment. I do not expect the official never to extort money again as a result of this interchange but rather to solve an immediate problem. By (hopefully) changing the context of the discussion from “me against you” to “we’ll solve this together”, my words and attitude make a difference.

I also think that Obama is right in presuming that most Muslims worldwide do not want to live under a fundamentalist regime, not even in Somalia. Muslims are created in God’s image and worthy of respect. They desire to live in peace and without fear. Fundamentalists of any flavor eventually hang themselves on their own rope but US rhetoric and attitudes have given the Islamists a lot more rope to work with before it begins to tighten. Obama’s speech shortened the rope and Obama and his team are not naïve enough to think that all will now be well. But we have a better chance for progress.

Finally, isn’t there an Arabic tradition of fine words and hospitable actions on the part of both guests and hosts while action, if there is any, takes place behind the scenes? Obama respected that tradition, again showing that he values those within Arabic and more broadly Islamic cuItures. I think that we need to look more closely at the responses of the Muslim man and woman in the street to gauge the success of the speech in accomplishing what the US hoped that it would—not in solving the problems but in beginning to change the ethos in which the problems are discussed. The last president to be able to do that effectively was Carter and the peace that he facilitated between Egypt and Israel has been among the few hopeful elements that has endured in the Middle East.

Do I think, then, that we’ll be able to immediately revive our plans to expand our work in southern Somalia because of a speech in Cairo? No, of course not. But I do believe that it incrementally reduces the power of the fundamentalists who sacrifice help for the poor among their own people to acheiving and maintaining rule over them.

And I believe, because we are created in God’s image, we wish to be respected and valued. Approaching those with whom we disagree with respect will not in itself close the gap that divides us but does make bridge-building easier.