Friday, June 5, 2009

The President’s Speech in Cairo

After years of bullying, false bravado, and “bring ’em on,” this is more like it.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

What struck me the most was that the president came to an Arab country and spoke to an Arab audience and said things that they probably didn’t like to hear — denouncing the Holocaust deniers and saying that Israel had a right to exist — but also balanced it with saying things that probably didn’t go over too well in Tel Aviv — comparing the oppression of the Palestinians to the struggle for civil rights here in the United States.

The reaction from the usual suspects — the American right wing — was predictable, although a few of them were honest enough to admit that it was “not bad.” The interesting thing is that Osama bin Laden reportedly emerged from his cave to attack the president’s visit to the Middle East as well. Strange bedfellows indeed.

What I think, though, that will resonate the longest from this speech — and from whatever actions follow — is that America will no longer hide behind the charade of “honest broker” while at the same time not really being one: taking Israel’s side no matter what they do and failing to recognize the simple fact that the Palestinians have as much a right to a homeland as does anyone else. Basically the president was telling all sides in the Middle East that the time for finger-pointing and blaming is over. He also made it clear that the back-room dealing is also over, basically, because as Hilzoy points out, once you are perceived as being on one side or the other, no one buys the “honest broker” line anymore.

As the president said, this isn’t going to be easy.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

It sounds like a good place to start.