Obama Delivers "Real Talk" on Islam at Cairo University


President Barack Obama's major speech in Cairo, Egypt lived up to the hype; not that, as the president said at the city's Al-Azhar University, "a single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," but that Obama is uniquely comfortable speaking plainly in the most uncomfortable of situations. And here—in a Muslim country not yet fully democratic, before an audience of skeptical, but cosmopolitan Egyptians and a noisome public at home—was an uncomfortable situation. Yet the 50-minute speech delivered on a campaign pledge to reach out to the Muslim world. Watch:

And, unlike the campaign, during which Obama showed repeated insensitivity toward Muslim-Americans, the president didn't shrink from the instinctive discomfort and the threat of domestic political backlash. Rather, he freely quoted the Islamic Qu'ran throughout his speech, using suras promoting peace and nonviolence, and citing at one point "the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer."


Obama's reverence for Muhammed got a huge round of applause from the packed hall—though perhaps not as loud as his assertion that he's closing the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, the earliest reactions suggest that results, rather than warm rhetoric, will keep better and thus travel farther than the audience of Arab elites in Cairo.

Nevertheless, the president trotted out the best of America's history with Islam, including Thomas Jefferson's personal Qu'ran, and John Adams' writing that "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims." Obama himself pledged "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," and insisted that America "cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism." Above all, the stylistic message he sought to impart was apiece with Colin Powell's stirring call for greater religious tolerance: "Islam is part of America."

From a policy perspective, Obama again took guidance from the Islamic holy text: “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” The meat of his speech addressed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, religious freedom, women's rights, and the unending conflict in the West Bank. The president did not break any new policy ground, particularly on Israeli-Arab peace, but was surprisingly blunt about US unpopularity, and the culture of avoidance and blame that persists in the Middle East, and impedes regional peace. And the optics of him speaking honestly and with reason to an assembly of Egyptians (just as America has grown accustomed to) were remarkable.

The effect of the president's liberal borrowing from Islamic, Christian and Jewish histories and rhetoric was a clever hodgepodge of influences that in the end seemed quintessentially American. Indeed, Obama made an explicit comparison between the patient suffrage and resistance of black Americans and what is needed in Palestinian territories:

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.

What do you make of the comparison? And of the speech in general?


(Home Page photo, via Getty Images: Iraqi men in Bahdad watch a live broadcast on satellite television of a speech delivered in Cairo by US President Barack Obama on June 4, 2009.)


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.