By Lynn Paris
The first two words that came to mind when I heard President Obama’s speech in Cairo were brilliant and idealistic. Brilliant, because, as a speechwriter I saw every element of a perfectly crafted speech, delivered by a gifted speaker. It had the right amount of context, delivered as it was to the Muslim world from an ancient Egyptian city. It used the Koran as a reference, it reflected on the contributions to society made by Muslims throughout the ages, and it reminded those who would prefer to deny it that Islam is very much a part of America.
It had a personal story, contained in Obama’s own incredibly relevant history; he is, after all, one of very few people who really does bridge the gap between the Muslim and Christian world, the African and American culture. It addressed the over-arching need to think in global terms, reminding us all how one country’s war, or disease, or economic crisis is no longer isolated to that country but now affects every citizen of our global society. And finally, it had a clear and cogent list of seven items that the President wanted to address more specifically. As for speech structure, then, it was definitely an A+.
Then there was the content, which is obviously just as necessary if a speech is to be called brilliant.
The Cairo speech contained far-reaching content, some of it provocative, but all of it refreshing in its clarity and honesty. In fact, Obama said early on that he was convinced that in order to move forward “we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.”
So he said the things he holds in his heart, openly, in front of the world, lest there be any doubt. He stated that we went to war in Afghanistan by necessity, but acknowledged that Iraq was a war of choice. And he went on to admit that America had abandoned some of its most cherished ideals when we failed to use diplomacy and consensus building as well as when we resorted to the use of torture.
He also tried desperately to separate the world’s perception of Muslims from that of extremists, calling on the Muslim world to be part of the solution—reminding them that extremists had killed people in many countries of all faiths, but mostly, they had killed Muslims. “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities,” Obama stated, “the sooner we will all be safer.”
When discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama made it clear that although this country’s alliance with Israel is unbreakable, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements on the West Bank and that they must stop. He also made it clear that all Arab states had a responsibility which could no longer be abrogated to help the Palestinians develop the necessary institutions for sustaining statehood—and once and for all recognize Israel’s right to exist. In other words, no one was off the hook; no side would benefit at the expense of the other, and America will align herself with those who pursue peace.
Perhaps Obama’s most surprising statement was when he declared that no single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons, something many assume to be America’s right. Further, he said that any nation—including Iran—should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power. Of course, he prefaced that by making clear America’s firm commitment to a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And, he also made it clear that Iran, or any other nuclear nation, had to comply with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Still, many considered this in sharp contrast to this country’s previously held views about how Iran’s nuclear capabilities should be handled.
“No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.” This was another provocative Obama statement, if only because it called into question what the United States has for a time considered its sacred calling: democracy building.
There was much more in the way of content, ranging from women’s rights to education and innovation. What Obama did, really, was redefine America, for the rest of the world and for Americans. Or perhaps reaffirmed what many have always believed America should be. So, in my opinion, his content was also worthy of an A+.
However, I used two words to describe his speech, and the second was idealistic. What I meant was idealistic in the nobler sense of the word . . . meaning that it spoke of a world, and an America that conformed to our highest ideals. It “positioned” America where many Americans believe we must be in order to once again be “the shining city on the hill.”
But it was also idealistic in the other sense of the word . . . the sense that it was naïve and unrealistic. Obama demonstrated that he is, above all, respectful of other faiths, of worldviews other than his own. But here, I believe, he is not in the majority. Because although he has defined an admirable position, how much of that actually becomes policy depends on the people.
And this is where I believe that Obama is overly idealistic; sadly, he overestimates the people. At one point in his speech, he said, “Among some Muslims, there's a disturbing tendency to measure one's own faith by the rejection of somebody else's faith.” What he should have said is that the same is true among some Christians, among some Jews, among some Buddhists, among some atheists, among some communists, among some socialists, among some capitalists, among some Caucasians, among some African-Americans, among some Indians and so on and so on and so on.
I was teaching a Sunday School class today and I asked the kids if any of them had heard President Obama’s speech. A couple had, but one sixteen-year-old girl said she wasn’t allowed to. When I asked her why, she told me that her parents hated Obama. “Why was that,” I asked her. She replied, “Because he’s black.” At the very same time, my husband was in a class where he was assured that ALL Muslims were liars out to destroy us. “Wait a second,” he said. “Do you mean ALL Muslims?” The answer was yes.
If Obama’s message was lost on these “Christians,” one can only wonder about the chances for the Israelis and the Palestinians. Clearly, President Obama has his work cut out for him.