Daoud Kuttab Headshot

Obama's Speech: Warm but Honest

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President Barack Hussein Obama spoke to Arabs and Muslims from his own experiences and from his heart. Without conceding much and while being honest with his audience, he clearly won over the hearts and minds of many people that have so far rejected America.

By speaking honestly, even on issues that are not pleasing to hear, he succeeding in bridging the biggest obstacle for all US administrations, that of hypocrisy towards the Middle East conflict. By speaking of the need to recognize the right of Israel to exist, he said we have to similarly recognize the rights of a Palestinian state to exist.

By retelling the Holocaust he was able to call Israeli settlements illegitimate. And by honoring the Islamic faith he was able to call for the need to honor Christian and other minorities in the Islamic countries.

In his address to students at the University of Cairo, Obama was clearly talking about the future while not failing to show respect to the Islamic faith and to the accomplishments of Muslims for generations.

He laid out his personal story by talking about his father's Islamic roots, his growing up days hearing the Muslem call to prayer and working side by side with American Muslims. He quoted the Quran appropriately while reminding people that he is a Christian and pointing out America's commitment to the Abrahamic faiths. He even showed understanding of the existence of Palestinian Christians and didn't shy away from speaking out about the rights of Coptic Christians in Egypt or Maronites in Lebanon.

Politically President Obama spoke forcefully against violent religious extremists without ever mentioning the word "terror" or "Islamic extremists." While putting the Middle East conflict second to the post 9/11 wars, he gave the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the same weight as he did the combined wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US president moved much closer to the international consensus by declaring settlement in the Palestinian territories illegitimate, a major shift in US foreign policy." The US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he told the cheering Egyptian attendees. President Obama committed that he will be personally involved in solving the conflict. He recognized the Palestinian refugee problem and even made a positive hint towards Hamas by saying that they "have support" among Palestinians and called on them to use that fact in a responsible way.

It was no accident that Iran and the nuclearization of the region was given less importance than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Obama hinted towards Israel when saying "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others don't." While opposing nuclear weapons world-wide including in Iran, he favored civilian use of nuclear energy for Iran.

Perhaps the harshest words that Obama had to make was reserved to undemocratic Arab leaders. He spoke about the need for freedom of expression and transparency while scolding leaders who rule against the consensus of their own people, or those who believe that elections alone equals democracy.

Obama spoke with conviction about the need to give women equal opportunities especially in education but criticized those who try to impose what women should or should not wear, a reference to the French ban on the hijab.

The US president has a tough act to follow. Now that the high expectation in the Muslim world from his speech have been fulfilled, the pressure is even greater on the American administration to deliver what it has promised. Failure to deliver on these promises will be much worse than had they not been made in the first place.