Obama in Cairo: Triumph or surrender?

Did President Obama succeed in changing the dynamic between the U.S. and the Muslim world with his address in Cairo?

It was the most anticipated speech of Barack Obama’s presidency thus far, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial, and it was nothing less than “a masterpiece.” Before an electrified audience of thousands of Muslims in Cairo, and millions watching on TV throughout the region, Obama last week called for a “new beginning” in America’s relations with the Muslim world—and may actually have brought one about. With the “skill and sensitivity” we’ve come to expect, Obama directly addressed the “spiky issues” in U.S.-Muslim relations, from Israel to women’s rights to nuclear weapons. But he did so, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, in a “tone of respect” that previous presidents have never managed, noting that he was descended from “generations of Muslims” on his Kenyan father’s side, quoting knowledgeably from “the holy Koran,” and even saluting the crowd with the traditional “Assalaamu alaikum.” He was met with repeated applause, and a final standing ovation, with one man jumping up to shout, “I love you!” Change will not come overnight, but “the fact that many Muslims now see a sympathetic figure in the White House creates new possibilities.”

Obama’s speech was historic, all right, said Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times, in that “no president before him has ever shamed us so.” Clearly relishing “the role of Apologizer-in-Chief,” Obama said the U.S. has been too heavy-handed in its dealings with Muslim nations, never used the word “terrorism” or referred to the horrific human-rights violations in Egypt and other Islamic countries, and vastly exaggerated the number of Muslims in the U.S. as 7 million. (The Pew research group says it’s 1.8 million.) And then came the main course—sticking it to Israel, said Anne Bayefsky in National Review Online. The plight of the Palestinians, said Obama, is “intolerable.” He said the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” and falsely claimed that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied”—thus affirming the regionally popular idea that Israel was a misguided gift to “transplanted, alien Jews” to compensate them for the Holocaust, rather than the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. This treacherous speech “was nothing short of an earthquake—a distortion of history, and an insult to the Jewish people.”

Did you actually listen to the speech? said David Horowitz in Salon.com. As a conservative, I wish Obama had pandered a bit less, but he hardly betrayed Israel. In discussing the Middle East conflict, “Obama began—began—by telling the Muslim world that the bond between Israel and the United States is ‘unbreakable.’” He then went on to inform all 1.5 billion Muslims, once and for all, that the Holocaust actually happened, and that denying this historical tragedy was “ignorant and hateful”; that 9/11 was the work of al Qaida, not a Jewish-American conspiracy; and that Palestinians, unequivocally and without negotiation, “must abandon violence” if they’re to see their dreams realized. Still, Obama frittered away a big opportunity here for the sake of pleasing his audience, said Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe. Obama “avoided speaking frankly about the dysfunctions in contemporary Islam,” including its angry rejection of modernity and the brutal oppression of Muslim women. Instead, he retreated behind such toothless truisms as, “It is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.”

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Self-righteous lecturing isn’t how you open a dialogue, said USA Today. No other president in U.S. history could have made this speech, and Obama’s skillful, strategic overture to the Muslim world has already changed the dynamic. In coming months, it will continue to cause much discussion in mosques and at dinner tables throughout the Middle East. It was no accident that Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian-born deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, released speeches of their own on the very same day, warning Muslims not to be seduced by Obama’s “polished words.” Clearly, Islam’s radicals are deeply alarmed by “the appeal of the new American president.” They should be, said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. The very existence of a warm, likable, nonwhite American president named “Hussein” already has young Muslims asking: “‘Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?’ You never know where that goes.”

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