The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Speech

The full text is here. Reactions to follow.

The money quotes:

The following are what I thought were the strongest parts of the speech.

On relations with the Muslim world:

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations - to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.

Since I don't think this part of the speech (its official reason) is either needed or necessary, I would just say that this message is positive, as is the recognition of Islam as part of America rather than this external entity.

On America post-9/11:

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

I think it's important to stress the shock of 9/11 on Americans. Too many people in the Muslim world have forgotten that to focus on their own grievances. The mention of torture, again, is ironic in a country that widely practices it.

On Israel/Palestine:

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

. . .

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It's a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

Israel must also live up to its obligations to ensure that Palestinians can live, and work, and develop their society. And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

Finally, the Arab States must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel's legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

Saying that the Palestinians' situation is intolerable is a fantastic move, as well as making it clear that there is a special US-Israel relationship. The emphasis of the US, and the Quartet, in getting all Palestinians to adhere to the Quartet conditions is wrong-headed, though, since there is no similar demand on the Israelis to give up violence. I would have liked to see a more explicit demand to lift the siege of Gaza and allow reconstruction to take place. Great reiteration of the demand that settlement expansion stop, let's hope for follow-through on this in the battle with the Netanyahu government in Israel. The idea that violence is a dead end in nonsensical, Gandhi needed violent nationalists in India just like Nelson Mandela needed the violent part of the ANC to present a credible threat. The question is when to abandon it, and having the option to abandon it.

On Iran:

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that 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. And any nation - including Iran - should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

A vague way to sidestep the issue of Israel's nuclear weapons and Arab demands for a single standard across the region.

On democracy:

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

To me this seemed like a reference to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt or the general fear of Islamists coming in to power in a "one vote, one time" manner. This is not so much the issue in the most countries, since they already have (fraudulently) elected government that maintain power through coercion rather than consent. Since that is the case in Egypt, it highlights the ironies of doing this speech in Cairo.

On freedom of religion:

Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld - whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And fault lines must be closed among Muslims as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

The mention of the Copts and Maronites may be a response to US political pressure on this issue, it is a good thing although used carelessly: Copts are the victims of discrimination, Maronites have political representation above their numbers in Lebanon, but fear Hizbullah's hegemony. So I found this a little clumsy and politically driven by the forthcoming Lebanese elections. But touching on this issue is nonetheless important.

On prosperity and development:

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create jobs. We will open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new Science Envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, and grow new crops. And today I am announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

A concrete initiative here, moving beyond the whole Arab Human Development Report condemnation of backwardness in the Arab world to actually doing something about it. I think this important, if the initiative is well implemented.

Above: The Hagg, owner of my local qahwa in Garden City, watching the Obama speech. More pics on Flickr.

Concrete new initiatives: White House releases memo on the education and technology initiatives Obama referred to in the speech. So what we're seeing is that the big picture stuff - Iran, Israel, etc. - is still being negotiated, but these modest initiatives are coming.