In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounted how during his time in prison he came to the belief that “If you will take one step toward Allah, Allah will take two steps toward you.”
He had something more personal in mind than American political outreach to the Muslim world, but the point stands. If only Americans had an eloquent, charismatic, man of color who could begin reaching out to the Islamic world, maybe the paradigm of mistrust and hostility between the U.S. and the broader Middle East could be shifted ever so slightly …
Oh, wait—we do.
During the first few months of his presidency, Barack Obama took a series of small steps toward opening a dialogue between the West and the Islamic world—his interview with al-Arabiya, his Nowruz greeting to Iranians and his address to the Turkish parliament. With his speech at Cairo University this week, he will take a larger one.
Obama’s middle name, “Hussein” (the Middle East equivalent of “Williams”), and his consensus-building style give him a head start with his Muslim audience. But Obama’s early, public opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq remains the singular characteristic that gives him credibility with Muslims and separation from past administrations.
Regardless of what Obama says, his American critics will dismiss the speech as “vague rhetoric,” and we can expect a comparable critique from radicals such as al–Qaida’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who already pre-denounced Obama’s speech as “bloody messages” concealed by “polished words.” But Obama isn’t proposing ready-made solutions for conflict in the region. His speech is meant to propel his administration into the next phase of diplomacy by convincing Muslims that he understands their concerns:
The Cairo audience will look for confirmation that Obama plans to continue pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—something Netanyahu says he won’t do. But Obama has to convey this without shaking Israel’s confidence in their traditionally tight alliance with the U.S.
At the same time, Obama has to bolster the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over that of Hamas, but carefully, without making Abbas seem like a puppet of the U.S. and the Israelis.
Obama must provide “ammunition” for Muslim moderates seeking to counter the anti-U.S. sentiment among their constituencies—tricky in a region where we define “moderate” as “pro-U.S.”—while some of those “moderate” regimes, like Egypt’s, deny political freedoms to their own citizens while preaching about liberation for Palestinians.
While some American conservatives are only concerned with asserting American infallibility in foreign affairs, the president will be trying to show a little superpower humility. After years of throwing around terms like “Islamic fascists,” we’ve effectively been calling our opponents in the Muslim world the equivalent of the N-word for the better part of a decade, and Obama has to walk back some of that rhetoric before we can get a fresh start.
But Obama will reinforce the point that the use of violence by groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or various factions of the Taliban is antithetical not only to the security interests of the West, but also to the development of long-term stability and prosperity in Muslim countries.
There’s no chance that what Obama says will get any of these groups to renounce violence—their ideologies are too entrenched. But he’ll try to shift the rhetorical burden toward them to justify themselves to their own constituencies, underscoring his message to extremists that “You will be judged on what you've built, not what you've destroyed.”
Obama may get immediate feedback on whether he’s had an impact on regional politics: Iran holds elections on June 12, featuring incumbent president and U.S. antagonist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against relative moderate, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi; and on June 7, the Lebanese will vote in a contest that pits a muddled Sunni/Christian/Druze coalition against a muddled Hezbollah/Christian coalition.
Obama’s Cairo speech is part of an overture that includes subtler forms of outreach with which people have now become familiar, like the way he pronounces “Pakistan” (“Pah-kih-stahn”) and “Iran” (“Ihr-ahn”), cultural notes sounded during the Democratic presidential primary debates that first signaled the possibility that he was attuned to the concerns of the Muslim world.
And to the degree that Muslim societies look to change their relationships with the U.S., Obama’s recipe of cultural nuance and diplomatic shoe leather has made them more receptive to listening. A recent Zogby-University of Maryland poll found that 51 percent of Arabs were “somewhat hopeful” about Obama’s foreign policy, although an Ipsos-McClatchy poll finds that Obama’s favorability rating in Egypt is still only at 35 percent.
Muslims already recognize that Obama’s speech does not equate to a drastic shift in American policy. They also have to recognize that outreach cannot only move in one direction. Obama’s diplomacy is an investment in U.S. national security via peacemaking in a part of the world that is frequently hostile to U.S. interests. But if, over time, Obama’s gestures don’t produce results, Obama, like any American president, probably won’t hesitate to use any means necessary, including military force, to facilitate American security aims.
He doesn’t speak Arabic, Farsi or Urdu, but Obama communicates in a language understood in the Middle East. While the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. support for Israel will continue, Obama will seek to shift Muslim public opinion by putting something new on the bargaining table: respect. The Cairo speech makes good on his inaugural commitment to “extend a hand” to Muslims with the expectation of receiving something other than a clenched fist in return. It’s a step toward Muslims, and in return Obama needs Muslims to take a step toward him and the United States.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.