Listening to Barack Obama's address to the "Muslim world" from Cairo University, I found myself checking off the points that I had heard mentioned by Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of Gallup's Center for Muslim Studies and the Muslim West Facts Project and the face of Obama's strategy to listen to Muslims.
Mogahed had outlined the three points indicated by polls that Muslims wanted to hear.
Respect from the United States for the religion of Islam and for Muslim cultures
No more unilateral action, but cooperation between equal partners
Address the policies of the United States that have angered Muslims on key issues, including Palestine, Iraq, Guantanamo, etc.
Mogahed soon clarified my misconception that she represents a pretty Egyptian woman in a hijab who, Sibyl-like, assumes the voice of the Muslim people. She is not employed by the State Department and remains a senior analyst at Gallup. She did not travel with the White House delegation but came independently to her native Egypt, (she has lived in the States since age five). When questioned about her vision for Muslim/American relations, she answered, "I have no vision. I am a scientist [she received a Master's in Chemical Engineering]. I use the best tools possible to present an accurate picture of Muslims' opinions and I compile these into reports, which I can only hope the president will find useful." She had not yet seen the speech he would deliver the next day; she has yet to meet Obama.
I was impressed, therefore, to hear her recommendations repeatedly reinforced by his speech. I lost count of the number of times he used the word "respect". The premise of his statements was the necessity of collaboration in a globalized and interdependent world.
And it seems that she was right. She, and the other advisers who contributed to the speech written by Ben Rhodes. And spoken aloud by our "Commander in Speech" as Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera's senior Middle East analyst, referred to him. Because the speech was a hit.
Al Jazeera's anchor in Doha was positively glowing and had to be reminded by a sleepy-looking Bishara to not be overly dazzled.
Dazzlement was in the air. Afterwards, walking the artificially quiet streets of Cairo as people began to emerge as if from an air raid, I interrupted a group of men still clustered around a TV.
"Helwa awi" (Very nice.) They said they had very much liked the speech. I asked if there had been any problems and they said none at all. Trying to keep in mind that they would be unlikely to tell me anything else, they appeared genuinely pleased.
In a taxi, I asked the driver for his opinion, and he launched into a happy spiel in heavy Cairene about Obama wanting peace and trying to make all the countries of the world work together. When I asked if this was possible, he responded that there had never been a president like Obama in the US, and therefore, "Aiwa, mumkin" (Yes, it's possible).
Speaking later with Sheikh Khaled El Guindy, one of the premier figures of Al Azhar mosque, he said, through a translator, "If we at Al Azhar had written this speech ourselves, we could not have done it better." He joked, "my only problem with it was that he did not mention me!" (Sheikh El Guindy appears on Islamic TV program watched by 25 million).
I couldn't believe how positive everyone's reaction seemed. After all the cliches of "Actions speak louder than words" and "One speech can't change years of mistrust" - surely it couldn't have been that easy? Finally an Egyptian journalist and friend called, "Why did he have to use those words?" she moaned.
"What? Which words?" I asked, trying quickly to remember any phrase that had stuck out as particularly provocative,
"America's unbreakable bond with Israel. I mean, of course it's the truth, but did he have to say it with those words?"
While she had liked the speech, she knew that some would wonder why Obama had emphasized the suffering of the Jews more than the Palestinians, ("They are tortured by Israeli security forces in Gaza!"). Listening to commentary from Al Jazeera Arabic, she exclaimed, "They're complaining that the Palestinian issue was the third issue instead of the first. They're trying to find any little faults they can." (For the record, the Palestinian issue was actually the second in Obama's checklist of issues. Violent extremism was the first. Hats tip to Dalia Mogahed and Co.)
I felt better somehow; hearing only positive reactions felt like some kind of fifth dimension. This is Cairo after all, a city the Dalia Mogahed had revealed polls as one of the region's most pessimistic.
When I mentioned Al Jazeera's criticism to Libyan philanthropist and prominent businessman Hassan Tatanaki, he laughed, "If this is all they can find to criticize, let them," he chuckled.
Tatanaki and Sheikh El Guindy have already responded to Obama's call for cooperation. I met with them to discuss the launch of the Al Azharia* satellite channel, which will air in Ramadan, (late summer this year.)
The channel's goal is to represent moderate Islam using the prestige of Al Azhar Islamic University and Mosque, in an effort to counter the extremists that "stepped into the void of Muslim leadership", as Tatanaki puts it. "In the age of Obama we realized it was time to look at new ways to deliver our message," added Sheikh El Guindy.