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Obama's (Almost) Perfect Speech

07/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Omid Safi Author, 'Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters'

2008-07-28-bnet_logo_white.gifHistoric. Brilliant. Nearly Perfect.

The tone of President Obama's speech in Cairo was most reminiscent of his masterful speech on race in America: Acknowledging open wounds on all sides, while laying out a hopeful vision for a shard future. It was a masterful narrative rejecting the Neo-conservative nightmare of the past 8 years which perpetuated the fallacy of "Clash of Civilizations." Obama began by mapping his hope for a "new beginning between United States and Muslims around the world." Obama then offered "the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive...they overlap..." He went on to identify the common principles between Islam and America: "justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

Words have power, and Obama spoke powerful words. He offered the Muslim greetings of peace ("al-salam alaykum") to his audience, and acknowledged the reality of Western colonialism, as well as his hope for a shared vision of coexistence and peace.

Powerful is the vision of an American president approvingly citing from the Qur'an [chapter 5, verse 32] that to save one human life is akin to saving the life of all humanity, and taking one human life is akin to taking the life of all humanity.

Obama hit many of the right notes: He conveyed to his audience that he is familiar with the vast and glorious history of Islam, such as the long periods of religious tolerance in Andalusia where Muslims, Jews, and Christian lived together in peace under Islamic rule. He praised Muslims' contribution to science, philosophy, and learning. His mentioning of "timeless poetry and cherished music" was a nod towards the rich aesthetic tradition of Islamic cultures.

The nuanced position Obama took on Palestine/Israel was the most closely watched component of his speech. The tone was expected, affirming America's allegedly "unbreakable" bond with Israel, while also acknowledging that Palestinians suffer in an "intolerable" condition. Yet the specifics offered were bolder: two states living side by side, a rejection of illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and Jerusalem as a city shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Many Muslims were offended that there was no mention of the recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Furthermore, it is maddeningly frustrating for Muslims to be repeatedly told that they have to recognize Israel's right to exist when it is not specified the borders of the state they are being asked to recognize: Would it be the 1967 borders? 1973? 2009? In addition, it overlooks the multiple times that Arab and Muslim states, including Palestinian authorities, have in fact recognized Israel.

As incomplete, and indeed flawed, as that portion of the speech was (delivered under intense pre-emptive pressure from the Israel Lobby), there was a magical, Obama-at-his-best, appeal to the Night Journey (Isra) of the Prophet Muhammad, where he prayed together with all the prophets, including Moses and Jesus, in Jerusalem. This is Obama at a level of rhetorical brilliance and inclusiveness that is simply unmatched in American politics.

There were other missed opportunities: There were no critiques of Egypt's own violations of human rights, something that Muslim human rights activists were eager to hear .

As a committed Christian, Obama knows all too well the Biblical challenge of "You shall know them by their fruits." Obama's words were historic, brilliant, almost perfect. Now comes the hard part of following up on the beautiful intentions and the inclusive words: Righteous and courageous action that bring all those of good will together. He -- and we -- shall be judged, on earth and in Heaven, by those actions.

Cross posted from Beliefnet's Progressive Revival

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