Where is the fire?
The problem with Obama's speech, more than its whitewashing of US imperial actions, is that it takes as given that a clash of civilisations is occurring, writes Hamid Dabashi*
In a million years no one would have imagined that a president of the United States would one day stand up in front of millions of Muslims around the globe and deliver the speech that Barack Obama gave on 4 June at Cairo University. Americans of all religious and political persuasions woke up on that cool summer Thursday and slowed down on their early morning chores to watch President Obama deliver this extraordinary speech half way around the globe, mindful of its seismic dimensions. Even President Obama himself had to dig deeply into the old box of American historical memory to find that "the first nation to recognise my country was Morocco," or that "in signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second president, John Adams wrote, "the United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Muslims," or that "one of our Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson -- kept [a copy of the Quran] in his personal library." Lest there be any doubt of the unsurpassed singularity of this speech all we need to do is not wonder if George W Bush or Dick Cheney were ever capable of anything like this, but rather imagine for a terrorising minute if John McCain and Sarah Palin were in charge of America's destiny today.
Much hasty praise and considerable legitimate criticism has already been made about the president's speech, especially about the distance between its floral eloquence and the scarcity of its specific policies, which would push the speech towards hallowed, however soothing, vacuity. But the fact is that the world is so deeply wounded and it is in such dire need of truth and reconciliation with itself that President Obama's words, coming from the person that he is, an African-American descendent of an African Muslim, were like drops of merciful rain on an arid desert. The next day, 5 June, millions of Muslim children around the globe (especially in North America and Western Europe -- where they are subject to unrelenting Islamophobia and racism) would report to their classrooms with their heads held slightly higher, prouder of who and what they are. In the wounded world that George W Bush, and before him generations of American military adventurism, left behind, any kind of healing is good -- even healing that is too high on Talmudic, Biblical, and Quranic wisdom but substantially low on the specific wrongs that America needs to right before the world feels even with it. Example: a whole eloquent paragraph on the innocent victims of 9/11 and not a single word on hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis perished or made homeless under American guns. Second example: landing the Jewish victims of European anti-Semitism, pogroms, and the Holocaust on the broken back of innocent Palestinians without the blink of an eye.
Such examples abound in the speech. But as an icebreaker, President Obama's speech touched all the right buttons. He praised the scientific and cultural achievements of the Islamic civilisation and its tradition of tolerance and racial equality. He brought the demonisation of Muslims home to Americans by connecting the Founding Fathers in one way or another to Islam. Much more he could have done by connecting the American Transcendentalist movement to classical Persian literature, or by pointing out that the bestselling poet in America today is a Muslim mystic named Rumi. But there is only so much one can expect from his speechwriters who could not even teach him how to pronounce the two simple Arabic words of hijab and Al-Azhar properly. He categorically reiterated what he had said earlier in Ankara: that "America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam." He explained his purpose in Afghanistan, called the war in Iraq "a war of choice", meaning it could have (and should have) been avoided, acknowledged the suffering of Palestinians, and even in a roundabout way compared the Israeli occupation of Palestine with the white supremacist suppression of the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid South Africa. Perhaps he did not mean to let it out quite that way, but it came out that way. He admitted that the United States toppled the democratically elected government of Mohamed Mosaddeq in 1953, just before or after he hinted that Israel too must abandon its nuclear privileges.
All legitimate criticisms notwithstanding, it is only at the symbolic, suggestive, or oratorical plane that the speech must be appraised. The most important problem with the president's speech -- healing and soothing as it was -- is not its lack of specificity, but in fact its general contour, its symbolic trajectory, entirely trapped as it is in a readily received and never questioned binary between "Islam and the West". Who said "Islam and the West" are these vastly divided continents that need bridging? Obama is squarely trapped inside a false binary. What the world witnesses today has never been a war between "Islam and the West". Americans are in Iraq and Afghanistan not because they are Muslim countries. It is only in the tormented imagination of Osama bin Laden and the contorted delusions of Samuel Huntington that there is a civilisational divide between "Islam and the West". Both the assumption of that divide and, a fortiori, the attempt to bridge that imaginary gap are false. America is also at odds with Hugo Chavez in Latin America and with Kim Jong-il in North Korea, and they are no Muslims. America is also at odds with China and Russia, and they are not Islamic countries. There used to be two superpowers running the world and now there is only one. This superpower is not at odds with any given religion or any religious community. It just wants to run the world and make it safe for neo-liberal economics and even safer and more pacified for the global economic meltdown that comes the morning after.
Why target Islam and Muslims to assure them they are not the enemy of humanity, or humanity is not at war with them? Because of 9/11, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? History -- simple, honest, straightforward history -- will go a long way in explaining these atrocities before we have any need to tell Muslims they invented algebra, or that Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Quran in Monticello. The Taliban are a band of highway bandits and drug traffickers that president Reagan recruited through Pakistan, having them paid by Saudi money to fight against the Soviets. Have they killed Americans? The Latin American drug cartels have killed and caused infinite more misery among Americans than Al-Qaeda has reportedly done. Should President Obama go to Bogota, Colombia, and give a speech that says Latin America has made great contribution to world civilisation, Gabriel Garcia Marquez deserved his Nobel Prize, and that the overwhelming majority of Latin Americans are God- fearing Christians?
Everything that President Obama said in his Cairo speech on 4 June is laudable, praiseworthy, beautiful and courageous, and gives much reason for hope. He came like a breath of fresh air, like a true prince of peace. He learned well the beautiful truths that the prophetic voice of that great liberation theologian, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, taught him in the Trinity United Church of Christ. The whitewashing of what Americans are doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan today, or what misery they have caused in Iraq, or how the state of Israel was forced on the broken back of Palestinians can all be set aside for the moment, along with many other specific issues that contradict the spirit of his talk. Far more important than all those specifics is the conceptual limitation and the fundamental assumption of a deep-rooted animosity between a vast abstraction called "Islam" and a highly polarised country called "America" that is in dire need of being questioned anew.
* The writer is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.