Hopes, Dreams and Nightmares – An Analysis of President Barack Obama’s Cairo Speech of June 5, 2009

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Sarah Stern and Kyle Shideler

President Barack Obama’s much anticipated Cairo speech had within it some high points and some rather disappointing ones. It carried a positive tone of respect to the Muslim world which can only help to build bridges and ease some unnecessary tension and several lofty universalist and humanist message that can only resonate well with anyone with a sense of the common thread of humanity and decency. However, there were also several deeply disturbing elements.

There are many conflicting narratives that are straining to be heard in the Middle East. In reaching out as strongly as he did to the Muslim world and glossing over many deeply troublesome issues, he seems to be signaling to all of us his desire to amplify the Arab narrative and to turn down the volume of the narrative of the small democratic state of Israel who has always shared a common value affinity with the United States, and who must live in a very tough neighborhood. This is deeply disturbing because in the international arena Israel and the United States have always had, with the exception of perhaps Micronesia, only one another to depend on. The worry is that this speech may be signaling an unwelcome bend in that long travelled road.

First the good news: President Obama spoke unapologetically of an America founded upon the ideal of equality, pluralism and tolerance. He spoke of his personal biography as someone with Muslim roots, and of the promise of opportunity that America holds for all.

Contrary to the worst fears of many, the President was clearly unapologetic in his defense of the security needs of Americans, promising to “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security”.

The statements regarding the brutal reality of the Holocaust are welcome reality testers in a region that is replete with historical revisionism and Holocaust denial. Another critically important piece of reality that the President unequivocally stated was that “Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied”. As basic as this statement sounds, the fact that the leader if the most powerful nation in the world uttered in front of a Muslim and Arab audience it can only be of benefit in eradicating the fantasy that many unfortunately still harbor in that region of the world about Israel’s eventual destruction.
His statement that “Threatening Israel with destruction” or “repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong” can only help to cement in the minds of the Arab world that antisemitism is not tolerated within his administration and that Israel is not a phase to be wished away or vanquished, but is a reality that is here to stay.

Another piece of good news: The President clearly told the Palestinians that they must abandon violence that it is wrong, and has never succeeded as a tactic. (He failed to state however that it is morally wrong. Is it simply wrong because it never succeeds as a tactic? Was this an intentional act of omission, or what the State Department refers to as creative ambiguity?)

Another high note is that the President exhorted the Palestinians to develop its capacity to govern themselves and that Hamas must abandon violence, recognize past agreements and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

However, that takes us to the bad news, of which there is much. President Obama indicated a profound lack of understanding of history when he compared the struggle of Palestinians to that of the blacks within our own country. Black people never used terrorism against innocents in this country. In fact, both Fatah and Hamas with their constant incitement to hate and kill, using every means of communication necessary, ( including the media, textbooks and, sermons from the mosques) are more analogous to the Ku Klux Klan’s role in the black struggle for freedom within our own country. His use of the term “resistance” totally underscores his misconception that the Palestinian cause is a movement of freedom from oppression, when in fact, Christians and Arabs living in Israel are more free then in any Muslim Arab nation.

The President speaks of the “daily humiliations” of Palestinians living under occupation, totally forgetting the six opportunities offered to Palestinians to have their own state since the 1937 Peel Commission, if it meant that they would also have to accept the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jews, up until the rejection by Yasser Arafat of the historic offer that was made to him on July 25, 2000 by Prime Minister Barak and President Bill Clinton.

That remarkable generous offer of shared sovereignty of Jerusalem, a return of all of the territories that Israel had captured in its defensive war of 1967, a re-absorption of thousands of refugees into Israel proper and a compensatory package of those that could not be absorbed was met with Arafat’s refusal to give a “yes” or a “no”, but simply walking away from the negotiating table. A few months later, his response came in the form of a renewed intifada which resulted in the loss of thousands of lives of thousands of lives.

If there were no terrorism, there would simply be no need for the “humiliation” of checkpoints or roadblocks, just as we would have no need to take off our shoes and wait on line to go through metal detectors in airports. Nor would there be a need for a security fence, which unfortunately reflects the reality of the tough neighborhood in which Israel is forced to live. It is an irrefutable fact that the erection of the security fence has resulted a great reduction in the amount of Israeli civilians killed by suicide bombings or stabbings.

When the President said that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” there is some degree of ambiguity in the sentence structure as to whether or not that means the construction of new settlements or that existing settlement blocks would have to be dismantled.

If it is the latter, then that reflects a total misreading of American policy heretofore. Since 1967, there has been an appreciation of the vulnerability of Israel’s 1949 armistice lines, an appreciation of how easily Israel could be overrun by rapidly shifting military and paramilitary forces and a recognition in successive American administrations that Israel must have “secure and recognized borders.”

In fact, in immediate days subsequent to the Six Day War, President Lyndon Johnson stated that “an immediate return to the situation as it was of June 4”,before the outbreak of hostilities was “not a prescription for peace, but for renewed hostilities.” He states that the old “truce lines”, (the 1949 armistice lines which had been the previous borders), had been “fragile and violated”. What was needed were “recognized boundaries” that would provide “security against terror, destruction and war.”
This sentiment has been expressed over and over again by countless administrations, including that of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush.

In fact, in a letter of understanding of President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 14, 2004, the former president wrote, “As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light if new realities on the ground, including already existing Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

It would be rather astonishing, in light of the historic record, if the intended meaning of President Obama’s statement would be to dismantle all settlements that have been erected since 1967.
The most troubling aspect of the speech, however, was the facile glossing over the existential threat that the Iranian nuclear program holds not just for Israel, but for the Sunni nations in the region. As opposed to previous presidents, there was no demand to Tehran for the immediate halt in uranium enrichment or nuclear production activities. It almost seems that he is expecting an Iranian nuclear capacity as a fait accompli.

This attitude marks a stark departure from that of previous administrations, and may constitute an extremely troubling shift, one that neither Israel nor the Sunni Arab states can well afford to live with.

Speaking of Iran, there was absolutely no reference to the Iranian proxies of Hamas and Hizballah, as such, even though they are among the most destabilizing elements in the region.
His words unfortunately also reflect a basic lack of understanding regarding radical Islam, and at worst, an implicit, if unintentional, endorsement of the campaign of stealth jihad being promulgated by Islamists in the West.

Take for instance, President Obama’s very first paragraph, which contains an endorsement of the mission of Al Azhar University as a, “beacon of Islamic learning.” It is impossible to imagine that the President really intends to endorse the university whose grand sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi issued a fatwa that suicide-bombers are martyrs under Islamic Sharia law , or which considers fatwas on subjects such as whether “the source of all the existing pigs in the world is Jews, who were cursed by Allah.” So instead, President Obama is speaking, not of an Al Azhar University which exists, but rather as he imagines it exists, regardless of facts to the contrary.

This kind of cognitive dissonance runs throughout the length of the speech, particularly when President Obama discusses Islam.

Take for example, President Obama’s reference to the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli. The treaty was signed by a newly forged United States which was too weak to defend itself from the piracy of the Barbary States. The text of the treaty primarily consists of a guarantee by The Pasha of Tripoli of the typical rights and freedoms of the seas, in exchange for goods and cash. It is, essentially, an agreement by the United States, to pay the jizya, the Shariah law proscribed tax on non-Muslims in Muslim controlled land. What is perhaps even more ironic is that the treaty lasted only 6 years, before being abrogated by the Pasha of Tripoli after President Jefferson, (whose ownership of a copy of the Koran President Obama highlights) refused to pay increasing exorbitant tribute, leading to a series of Barbary wars finally ending with an American victory and the end of extortion in 1815.

President Obama would not be the first President to misuse a historical reference in his speech, but in doing so, he reveals the depths of his mis-education regarding the Islamic world’s relationship with the West. Further this flawed understanding, is the basis for the policies he puts forward in the remainder of the speech.

Obama’s self-appointed responsibility to fight “negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear” seems to be taken directly from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the largest voting Bloc of the United Nations, which in the past several years has been working tirelessly to criminalize free speech, as it relates to analysis of the history and theology of Islam. Take for instance, this week’s condemnation by the Islamic states of U.N expert on the right to free expression by Frank La Rue. La Rue said, “Restrictions should never be used to protect particular institutions or abstract notions, concepts or beliefs, including religious ones…” The OIC, led by Pakistan, and the Africa Group, led by Egypt, slammed the report, for failing to report on “abuses of this freedom [of expression].” Rather than use his opportunity at Cairo to defend the Western concept of free expression, President Obama implicitly endorses the OIC effort to silence its critics.

And while President Obama points to America’s freedom of religious practice, he uses it to endorse a typical Council on American-Islamic Relations talking point that somehow, somewhere, women are being kept from wearing hijabs in America. The reality however, is that when such controversies have arisen, they’ve invariably been in places where all attire covering the head was prohibited, or where it interfered with identification for law enforcement or other purposes. The inclusion of this statement by the president is at best shameless pandering, and at worst, seeks to reinforce the very false perceptions of America Obama claims to desire to dispel. Nor is it the only case where the President avoided an opportunity.

President Obama cited the figure of 1,200 American mosques, but fails to note that at least 27% of them are controlled by the Wahhabist-funded, Muslim Brotherhood-linked, North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). The NAIT is an arm of the Islamic Society for North America (ISNA), an unindicted co-conspirator in the successful Holy Land Foundation prosecution. The ISNA was listed as a partner of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the now infamous Holy Land Foundation trail documents, in which the Muslim Brotherhood calls for a strategy of “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”

Of course, no pundits truly expected Obama to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood and its “sabotage” plot, in the same speech where U.S Officials allegedly insisted that M.B officials be allowed to make up part of the audience, according to Marc Ambinder of the news magazine, The Atlantic.

Perhaps the least noticed, but most egregious statement in this vein, comes from Obama’s proclamation that he is committed to improving American Muslim’s access to zakat, that is, charitable giving required under Islamic Shariah. The President appears to be asserting that some kind of substantial government action interferes with charitable giving by Muslims in the United States. The only government action which would appear to fit the bill, however, is the Treasury Department’s designation of several Islamic charities for contributing to the financing of terrorism, and the legal action taking by the justice department in terror financing cases, such as in the Holy Land Foundation trial mentioned early. The argument that these investigations are targeting innocent Muslims charities has been made, primarily by the same Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups listed as co-conspirators in the HLF case. Indeed, CAIR drew the same conclusion as to the meaning of Obama’s remarks as it praised the statement in a recent press release.

While it was heartening that President Obama brought up Human Rights and in particularly women’s rights during his speech, sadly the language did not go nearly far enough. Nowhere did President Obama address the wide spread practice of honor-killings in the Islamic world, which is now found even among immigrant communities in the West. As author and long-time feminist Phyllis Chesler wrote in the Spring 2009 Middle East Quarterly, “The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families. This may be an underestimate. Aamir Latif, a correspondent for the Islamist website Islam Online who writes frequently on the issue, reported that in 2007 in the Punjab province of Pakistan alone, there were 1,261 honor murders. The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization focusing on women’s empowerment, found that the rate of honor killings was on track to be in the hundreds in 2008.

Indeed President Obama’s claim that some in the West consider women who cover their hair “less equal” makes a mockery of the work being done by advocates to protect women who have been murdered by their own families for failing to adhere to Islamic standards of dress or morality, such as the Canadian case of 16 year old Aqsa Parvez, strangled by her father for refusing to wear a hijab.

In conclusion, as a sermon from a preacher, the speech was soaring, full of humanistic hopes and egalitarian dreams. As a policy statement, it lacked meat on the bone, and what there was to chew on glossed over so many very real threats to Western civilization and the balance of power in the Middle East, that if translated into policy prescriptions, we may well be left with a nightmarish scenario with which to contend for many years to come.

In the June 4th speech in Cairo, President Obama spoke about the bonds America shares with Israel, saying:

“America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known.This bond is unbreakable.It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

Indeed, Israel is the United States’ strongest ally in the Middle East, as reflected in how often the two countries vote the same way in the United Nations:
(Source: U.S. State Department, Voting Practices in the United Nations, 2008, via Michael Rubin at The Enterprise Blog.)

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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