A New Dawn: Obama in Cairo
During the presidential campaign, I wondered what it would be like to have a leader with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela in charge of the most powerful nation on Earth. Now we do.
That, to me, was the impact of the President’s speech to the Islamic world in Cairo Thursday. [Use this post for easy word searching.] The speech had some political content, to be sure. And it was carefully nuanced and framed to appeal to his primary audience. But most of the people reporting on it were listening for the wrong things.
It was not an announcement of a change in policy, nor was it intended to be. It was not a ten-point plan. Nor was it a sudden, brilliant solution to the world’s most longstanding and vexing problem, of Israel and Palestine. Instead, it was a clarion call to moral clarity. It was the (previous) Pope going to Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, the apt phrases from the Quran, the Bible and the Torah were lost on most Americans and indeed most Westerners. Secular folk hear these well-worn phrases and think “cliché!” But to believers, they carry deep meaning. They are cultural icons.
Even among educated, secular Westerners like me (an assimilated, unobservant Jew), the Bible (along with the works of William Shakespeare) is one of the most important, compact forms of accumulated cultural wisdom on the human condition. The same is undoubtedly true of the Quran for Muslims and the Torah for observant Jews. What Obama was doing—as only he can—was putting his call for moral clarity in words and a context that resonate with Muslims’ long and rich history, while keeping morally congruent with Christians’ and Jews’ as well.
Before our eyes and ears, he sketched a picture of common humanity that no educated, moral person could deny. It was a masterful performance.
New York Times reporters heard his words as “scolding at times.” Maybe they were, but only gently so. The President was asking his audiences—in Cairo, around the world, and here at home—to grow up. He asked them to forsake childish peeves for adults’ mutual respect. He asked them to be honest about what they know and really think. And he asked them to strive, as adults do, to find common ground for cooperation rather than pretext for discord.
His was a simple moral message. It was the kind of message that great leaders in both politics and religion have delivered since the dawn of human history.
The President reminded the world that Islam was a beacon of tolerance and justice during the Inquisition. He did not name Saladin, but his words evoked that great and wise Muslim leader, who took a Jerusalem devastated and tortured by Crusaders and built it into a tolerant, international city where justice reigned and Christians and Jews could practice their religions unhindered.
If Muslims could build such wise, just, tolerant and prosperous societies a millennium ago, Obama implied, they can do it again. The President challenged Muslims worldwide—and especially in the Middle East—to do just that.
Yet the President’s message was not for Muslim ears alone. It was badly needed here at home, where we have engaged in so much breast-beating about how good our system is and how big are the defects in others, including the “Old Europe” that gave us birth.
Obama challenged us and the rest of the world to abandon stereotypes of Muslims. He acknowledged that fighting stereotypes is part of his job as President of the United States. Then he dwelt at length on specific themes of honesty, transparency, democracy, women’s rights, and economic development. But what struck me hardest was his simple plea for honesty, decency and mutual respect.
How many Jews here at home think that expanding Israeli settlements is both strategically stupid and morally wrong, and deplore what is happening in Gaza, but don’t say so? How many Arabs—even Palestinians—think that launching rockets to kill or maim school children is not the best way to achieve freedom and sovereignty, but don’t say so? How many Arabs and Iranians understand how little the Arab nations, let alone Iran, have done to help the Palestinians improve their miserable lot in life, but don’t say so? If the “moral majorities” in both Israel and Palestine had they way, there would be peace, but extremists and self-seeking politicians without vision have hijacked both sides.
So the searing lesson of the Holocaust applies to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including their respective foreign supporters. Evil triumphs when good people say and do nothing. Maybe now more good people will speak up.
And so it went. Detractors will say that the President is a starry-eyed idealist. They will say that morality and humanity alone can never succeed. They will call him a wimp.
But you could say the same about Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Detractors derided every one as an idealist, until he made his dreams happen. And every one realized his dreams through moral suasion, not the barrel of a gun. Today’s idealists are tomorrow’s social and moral heroes.
We need such heroes right now. For humankind has the power to destroy itself and to ruin our planet for life as we know it. Avoiding these fates will require extraordinary leadership and great capacity for change. The usual cycle of rage, reconciliation and regret is no longer good enough. Radioactive isotopes don’t feel regret; nor do melting polar ice caps. They just keep making life as we know it inexorably less enjoyable and less possible.
The President, of course, is more realist than idealist. Several times he said that moral suasion will only help a bit, at the margins. It might only improve the atmosphere for negotiation.
But Obama is also one of the few world leaders in my lifetime who sees over the horizon. Toward the end of his speech, he gave us a hint of his real audience. “[T]o young people of every faith, in every country,” he said, “you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.”
President Obama has no illusions that the changes he called for in Cairo will come easily or will happen overnight. But, as a realist and idealist packed in one skinny human form, he knows we must start somewhere. If he succeeds in calling the world to a new vision, a century from now last Thursday will be a global holiday, celebrating the day when the human race at last began to come together.