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Category: Politics, International

Addressing the Muslim World, President Obama Reached Well Beyond the Arab Dignitaries

| June 8, 2009

The author wonders if his pre-speech visit to a kingdom where women are oppressed weakens his appeal on behalf of women’s rights.

As I boarded the Paoli Local from Philadelphia to head down to our 30th reunion at Bryn Mawr College, the lush greenery of the Main Line seemed such sharp contrast to our lives since that rainy graduation day in May 1979. Our little group from the Middle East and West Asia, Nayla from Lebanon, Nassrin from Iran, Mai from Saudi Arabia and myself from Pakistan, had seen three decades of turbulence, war, dislocation and terrorism, with our lives turned upside down.

For Nayla every college vacation would have to start with a call to Beirut before boarding the flight from Philly to ensure that there was a lull in the fighting and the airport was still open. A month before we were handed our degrees, Nassrin and her sister were stranded in the West, as Iran fell to the mullahs. Mai faced returning to Saudi social restrictions and handing in her driving license. I too left the United States with an impending sense of doom, as our elected prime minister, Z.A. Bhutto, had been summarily hanged by a military dictator a month before.

Lebanon recovered from open war but remains turbulent. Iran remains under the mullahs’ grip. Women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. And Pakistan is battling for its survival against the Taliban. All four of us have fled to distant shores and live the émigré existence—one eye on news channels from home and one on the clock.

This is the Muslim world that U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to address within his first hundred days; a promise he kept on June 4th at Cairo University. Among Muslims, speculation about the location of the speech started immediately after his Inaugural address, when he had spoken directly to the Muslim community. Many said he would pick Indonesia, where he had spent his childhood, the largest Muslim nation with a liberal Islam. Some said Turkey, still trying to integrate into Europe, would be the choice; after all Obama’s is an integration success story.

But Obama is the odd politician who avoids the easy task; according to James Zogby, in an op-ed for Al-Ahram, he has a penchant for “taking on big issues with big speeches”—a method that worked very well in the electoral campaign with his Philadelphia speech on race.  The “big issue” is between the United States and the Arab Muslim world—namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the extremist offshoots of Wahhabi Islam. So the location would have to be an Arab country. Egypt, both Arab and African, multiracial, cosmopolitan, intellectual, and cultural center of the Arab world, its most populous country, one that had made peace with Israel, was the natural choice. “We felt like we had won the World Cup,” says Mohammed Sherdy, member of the Egyptian parliament from the opposition Wafd party.

For the actual venue, Obama had decided to address the young generation from an ancient center of learning, both religious and temporal—Al-Azhar, the authoritative school of Islamic law, and Cairo University. “It was excellent that he chose a place of learning, not a mosque or a palace. It reinstates Al-Azhar as the place where change and reforms can and should take place, emphasizing Islamic learning over dogma,” Nayla said as we rehashed his words.  The speech itself was everything one has come to expect of this extraordinary man—eloquent, well researched, hitting every point, including uncomfortable truths and nuances in a deliberative sequence, mixing praise with admonishment, advice with encouragement.

The only sour point for me was the nipping in for a pre-speech overnight visit to Riyadh to meet the Saudi King in that country where women’s lives are so constricted.  It was clearly a last minute detour, as the normally unflappable Obama mixed up the “place where Islam began”—Mecca in the Hejaz, not Riyadh in the desert—in blurted response to a reporter’s question. But it left a Muslim feminist wondering whether the visit explained women’s rights being shuffled to point six in a seven point agenda outlined in the Cairo speech. I was also disturbed not to see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sitting in the gilt chair opposite her Saudi counterpart. Were women not welcome in this photo op? Though Egyptians put a gracious face to it, there was disappointment that the only leader mentioned by name in the speech was the Saudi King. The Egyptian president did not attend the speech, sending his son instead.

In a straw poll of my friends on Facebook, opinion is divided regarding the significance of the Saudi overnight.  Former Pakistani legislator Dr. Noor Jehan Panezai, with whom I had gone to the pilgrimage to Mecca, assures me, “It doesn’t matter if he stopped to see the Saudis; they are the America’s trade and security partners.”

For first generation American Muslims, Obama’s speech finally acknowledged their place in this society.  Maha Saad, an Egyptian American living in Washington D.C., was thrilled “that Obama spoke as though Muslims and Americans were equal.”  All throughout Obama’s electoral campaign, Muslim Americans held their breath. Many felt they would endanger his candidacy if cheered too loudly, or supported him too publicly, as it might bring attention to his Muslim heritage; he too seemed to avoid the burden of his middle name.  Mohammed Sherdy, who represented Parliamentarians for Global Action as an electoral observer during the U.S. presidential campaign, “noticed that [Obama] is now more open to acknowledge his own Muslim roots.”

Obama charmed Muslim audiences, both in the hall and the virtual arena, by using verses of Quran, explaining much like the law professor he was how extremist violence, violent resistance to occupation, lack of representative government, inequality of men and women, were all contrary to the principles of the Quran.  He seemed to tie U.S. foreign policy under his administration with those principles. “What he actually did was to quote [the Quran], this is what your religion is saying and this is exactly what I want you to do, a Road Map for the Islamic world,” said Sherdy as he gave real-time commentary on the speech over Egyptian media.

While the hall was filled with senior Egyptian dignitaries, government and opposition, including the banned Muslim brotherhood, the real impact of his speech will be its multiplier effect on young people in the Muslim world, replaying on YouTube, long after it has left mainstream media. His ability to personalize the story, to be the speech, may leave intellectuals skeptical. But the people love him.

Mohammed Sherdy described how the mosque Obama visited in Cairo, even though as a Christian he did not pray in it, had record numbers coming for Friday prayers the next day.

President Obama has stirred a well of expectations. “The regimes he was speaking to need to start delivering change now; this man is going to go over [their] heads to the young” warns Sherdy.  In initiating a theological debate at the heart of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world, and doing so at its historical center, Obama has taken on a mantle of much more than the U.S. Presidency.