President Barack Obama's restrained part-olive branch, part-truth telling 55-minute speech at Cairo University was an outstanding first step in attempting to bridge the gulf that exists between the U.S. and Muslims around the world. While it will take years, if not decades, to create a more peaceful, loving, and just relationship, it is clear that President Obama understands that part of the world in a way that far exceeds those of past presidents. His willingness to speak uncomfortable truths to Muslims and Americans reveals a kind of engagement with the Muslim world that will likely benefit us all.
Obama's goal was to start the process of rebuilding U.S.-Muslim relations. This is a tall task, given the multi-decade, tension-filled relationship. Too often, U.S. administrations -- without regard to political party or ideology -- have supported undemocratic, authoritarian, misogynistic regimes in exchange for continued access to Middle Eastern oil. Rank-and-file people throughout the Middle East understand this reality, which helps to create the anti-Americanism that is all too prevalent in that part of the world. Moreover, U.S. support for Israel, which many Muslims see as coming at the expense of Palestinians, also complicates matters.
Obama's speech deftly walked the line between condescension, on the one hand, and blame-gaming on the other. Obama's lineage, no doubt helps. Leading with a personal narrative that he said has given him a view of Islam on "three continents," Obama spoke eloquently of Islam's contributions to the world and that the first country to recognize the newly created United States was a Muslim one -- Morocco. To be the first African American president with a heritage that includes Islam gives him more legitimacy than any other president to make this speech.
Regarding Israel, he noted that it was baseless, ignorant, and hateful to deny the Holocaust. But he also stated that Israel must recognize the Palestinian's right to exist. He urged Muslims not to fall prey to "crude stereotypes" of America. He also conceded that Iran should have the right to pursue peaceful nuclear power, so long as it is within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Perhaps likely to get lost in the comments about Iran, Israel, and Palestine were his remarks on democracy. His thoughts on this topic came late in the speech, but should not be overlooked. The status quo leaders in the Middle East have largely resisted the urge to become more open and democratic. The president's thoughts could potentially embolden people on the ground throughout the Middle East to push for more democracy. That could represent more of a challenge to the oil- and religious-based leadership status quo than anything the U.S. government could do.
There were no harsh words, no sense of belligerence, just a case made for a new relationship. Let's hope this is the start of a serious and sustained effort to undo the stereotypes on both sides of the issue.