04 June 2009

Obama's hour

Today in Cairo, Barack Obama's speech did as much as one 55-minute speech from one politician could do to open up new hope for US relations with global Islam. Afterwards, plenty of disappointed commentaries from his would-be ventriloquists told us what he should have said, and even I have some regrets--but none of them/us would have had to deal with the chaos that would have engulfed him had he wandered outside the bounds of diplomatic necessity. Within those bounds, he actually did quite a lot. Some high points for me follow, but I'm also aware: the space he opened up with these points will close again if he and others don't follow up with concerted repetition and implementation.
  • "...I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. ... Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire." (I'm absolutely ecstatic that Obama bluntly challenged the hypocrisy that is practiced by practically every government, including those governments that hope the USA will do their regional dirty work for them while absorbing simplistic and diversionist anti-Americanism.)

  • "... [W]e reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children." (What does this rejection mean for drone airplane attacks in Afghanistan?)

  • "Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible." (Important implication: we did not in fact use diplomacy and international consensus in the case of Saddam Hussein. Continuing implication: Subject our actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan to this same rigorous test. I think it is interesting that we cannot recruit serious international military support for the fight in Afghanistan. Does anyone actually believe that "we" can prevail in Afghanistan without the deaths of many more innocent and semi-innocent, honestly conflicted people?)

  • "[W]e do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. ... I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq's sovereignty is its own." (Will we seriously abandon the enormous bases we have built and are building right now in these countries? If not, then Obama lied. If so, let's think for a minute about the mind-boggling price tag for those disposable bases! In any case, I wonder whether the imperial reality of American garrisons in every corner of the world will drown out these few sentences of Obama's speech. The USA does in fact "lay claim"--whether by affinity, persuasion, or pressure--to territory for 850 "sites" in 150 countries, scheduled to be reduced to 550 by 2014.)

  • "...[I]t is also undeniable that the Palestinian people--Muslims and Christians--have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations--large and small--that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." (I see no evidence to support those who charge Obama with asserting equivalence between the Holocaust and today's suffering of the Palestinians. He said what he said; interpretation inevitably reflects the rhetorical interests of the interpreter. However, some would argue that the same sin, objectification of the "other," is behind both situations--Holocaust and gratuitous humiliation--despite the assymetry. Today, I simply appreciated the blunt and accurate description of the Palestinian reality, the courtesy behind using the designation "Palestine," and the reference to Palestinian Christians.)

  • "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." (Again, it's probably not easy for imperial leaders, no matter how well-intentioned, to remember that these true words apply also to them and their drone-delivered missiles.)

  • "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true." (If implemented with persistence and trustworthiness, this could be a breakthrough principle.)

  • "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere." (America has in fact practiced the reverse of this principle: We have presumed to know what is best for everyone, but we have only selectively supported human rights by pleading "realism" and political prudence. I don't have easy answers for Obama and the USA, but let's be honest, because dishonesty breeds cynicism.)

  • "Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of another's." (A quiet hint that Obama is willing to risk honesty in dialogue with Islam--not simply trading empty compliments. Honesty would also lead to acknowledgment that among some Christians, the same tendency exists.)

  • "I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice." (Again, I appreciate the willingness to issue a respectful challenge.)
Obama's international critics keeping repeating the point that they want action, not words. But words are powerful. If the USA's president can model telling the truth, expressing respect, acknowledging errors, confronting hypocrisy, exposing secrecy, rejecting simplistic formulas, and making commitments in the face of doubts about his country's motives, he empowers those of goodwill and creativity in every camp. Now he--and we--must stubbornly keep the space open for their (our) efforts to bear fruit.

And, tell me: who else on the world stage right now is taking the rhetorical risks that Obama took today? Most international politicians seem to be saying why they can't rise to the occasion, whatever it is, or why their problems (their country's problems) are somebody else's fault.

Friday P.S.: I can't help contrasting this speech with the last time I commented on a presidential speech on Islam.

Meanwhile ... What is the state of Jewish-Christian dialogue today? In her article "Terms of Engagement," Books & Culture columnist Lauren Winner comments on three related books.
. . . Christians need to participate in these conversations, it seems to me, for at least three reasons. First, for people who are called to love God with our minds, and who are called to love neighbor, substantively theological conversation between Jews and Christians may be seen as a form of neighbor-love. Second, these conversations are an act of repentance—repentance for the violent consequences that Christians' stories about Jews and Judaism have had for Jewish communities for centuries. Third, we need Jewish conversation partners for the integrity of our own theological narration.
More links: A former AIPAC lobbyist tells Jerusalem Post columnist Douglas Bloomfield, "There is no military option in Iran." ~~ Mennonite resources for Christian-Muslim understanding. ~~ "Not bothering" vs Christian citizenship: Considering today's European Parliament elections. ~~ Quakerspring at Barnesville is just a few days away; here's who is coming and what they are hoping for. ~~ Here's a Sotomayor "core dump"--thanks to Noli Irritare Leones for the link. Here you can find out more about the nomination process and get the public version of Judge Sotomayor's nomination questionnaire. And an evangelical columnist agrees that "empathy matters." ~~ Gene Stoltzfus on "Pentecost in Pakistan." And aren't Friends actually Pentecostal? Shouldn't we be? Ashley sees many parallels. ~~ Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill: "It shall take quite a bit of time until those who are Orthodox in name become firm and active believers." ~~ In my years of work in three Christian bookstores, I sold many Francis Schaeffer books, so I've been fascinated by the evolution of son Frank's thinking. The murder of George Tiller prompted Frank to issue an apology for some of the old Schaeffer rhetoric; coverage here by Anj (including video) and here by Wess. ~~ Internet Monk is running reruns. Here's one of the best: "Credible Christianity for the Cultural Atheist." ~~ Almost everyone I know who takes the Bible seriously struggles with Old Testament cases of apparent genocide. Here's a place where you can contribute your questions and insights.

Janiva Magness and Charlie Baty are delightful together in this video posted by bassist Mookie Brill:

My Baby

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

Well there were some good things about the Cairo speech, but he did not practice honesty. Clearly he does not reject the killing of innocent men, women and children, and he is a strong advocate of violence (there's a whole section of the speech devoted to that, although he doesn't use the word violence to describe what we're doing).

It is the gross hypocrisy about violence that most struck me about the speech. See my blog post, Obama's Double Standard. Also the hypocrisy in the stark difference between actual policy, as represented in the budget, for example, and what he said in the speech. This is part of a long tradition of Administrations saying good things about Middle East policy, while what they were actually doing was not so good.