- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Obama’s speech last week in Cairo was well-received by most of his target Muslim audience, but with some caveats. The general response sums up the nature of the orator — Mr. Obama’s promised “new beginning” between Islam and America sounds great but lacks substance.

As in many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, symbolism got high marks on Thursday. Pakistani journalist Asif Khan told us, “Muslim sympathy was gained” by the speech, particularly when Mr. Obama discussed his own Muslim roots. Mr. Khan said that greeting the audience with the Arabic “Assalaamu alaykum” (“Peace be upon you”) “made people quite emotional,” and Mr. Obama quoted verses from the Koran “quite expertly, I would say. He played his card quite well.”

There was fine attention to detail in the speech, such as when Mr. Obama referred to the Middle East as “the region where [Islam] was first revealed,” rather than saying it was where the religion was founded or originated. Jamal Abd Al-Jawad of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, appearing on an al-Jazeera roundtable, praised Mr. Obama for giving “an Islamic speech.” On the same program, Abd-al-Khaliq Abdallah of United Arab Emirates University said he was “enthusiastic about Obama in person and not about the United States and its policies” because he sees in Mr. Obama “something different than his predecessors.”

The president employed his customary rhetorical device when characterizing the central issues facing the region — listing the major complaints of both sides — which was too balanced for those who refuse to recognize that, in fact, there are two sides. But others chose to amplify portions of the speech out of context in ways that cast their camp in the best light. Pro-Palestinian commentators trumpeted that Mr. Obama said the situation facing Palestinians was “intolerable.” Pro-Israeli commentators focused on Mr. Obama’s call for Palestinians to end incitements and violence. Read in that manner, there was something for everyone.

Most criticism focuses on the lack of specifics — a typical trait of Obama sermons. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, appearing on Lebanese television, said Mr. Obama “wanted to decorate the speech with nice phrases here and there. But what is taking place on the ground? The massacre in Afghanistan is still the same. The war on Iraq is still the same. The war on Palestine, Gaza, and Hamas is still the same.”

Mr. Khan raised three issues Mr. Obama chose not to address: the final status of Jerusalem, the conflict in Kashmir and the president’s inconsistent views on democracy. “While praising democracy as the way forward,” Mr. Khan said, “Mr. Obama bitterly criticized Hamas. Why? Was Hamas not elected by the people in January 2006 elections with 74 seats to the Fatah’s 45 seats?” Mr. Khan also noted dryly that Mr. Obama “should also have reviewed the state of affairs of the country he was standing in [Egypt] while loudly advocating democracy,” as Hosni Mubarak has been Egyptian president for life since 1981.

As we have noted in these pages, much of the policy substance of the speech was similar if not identical to George W. Bush administration policies. The novelty was not the message, but the messenger. The bottom line is that the Muslim world is now willing to listen to proposed solutions to the problems Mr. Obama mentioned, and the onus is on the United States to provide them.

“President Obama’s speech is positive to a great extent,” Pakistani analyst Mutahir Ahmad said on Karachi television. “However, the Muslim world is waiting to witness what practical steps are taken after it.”

So are we.

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