Obama in Cairo: selective historical memory

President Barack Obama’s historic speech to the Muslim world, delivered June 4 at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, Islam’s highest institution of learning, was—like much in the president’s program—a meaningful step forward nonetheless compromised by tactical equivocation. This is illustrated by two historical invocations in his text: one a courageous repudiation of his predecessor’s Christian crusader mentality—the other a dangerous omission that undermines his message of reconciliation…

First, Obama invokes legacies of American secularism and peace with the Islamic world dating to the dawn of the republic—which were in danger of going down the Orwellian Memory Hole under the Bush regime:

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.

As we’ve noted, Morocco’s sultan Sidi Muhammed ibn Abd Allah, presumably pleased to see Europe losing its colonial holdings, expressed interest in recognizing the US as early as 1780—when the outcome of the War of Independence was by no means certain. Early treaties with Morocco and Tripoli failed to avoid the 1801-5 Barbary Wars, because hardliners (like Jefferson) on both sides escalated brinkmanship in the Mediterranean. But Obama embraces the “pragmatic” Adams legacy, of seeking co-existence.

Next, however, addressing the Palestinians, Obama conveniently overlooks a far more critical episode in American history:

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.

Obama had no problem invoking Gettysburg in his inaugural address, but speaking to the Palestinians he suddenly forgets that the Civil War even happened. Slavery was not ended by passive resistance, but a war that cost 600,000 lives on the battlefield and perhaps that number again in civilians. Even Martin Luther King’s nonviolence was a moral force that won the federal government, with its armed might, to its side—as in the desegregation of Arkansas’ schools, enforced by army troops. And Nelson Mandela’s 1990 deal to peacefully dismantle apartheid came after 30 years of African National Congress guerilla struggle.

We bring this up not as an apologia for suicide bombings or rocket attacks—just to point out the counter-productive absurdity of the leader of the world’s most powerful empire preaching nonviolence to the oppressed and stateless. Obama’s repudiation of Bush’s GWOT legacy would be a lot more plausible if it were really unflinching about inconvenient truths. And would go a lot further towards actually chilling out the Palestinians.

See our last posts on Obama and the struggle within Islam.

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  1. war and peace
    I agree that Obama’s message would be stronger and more believable if he dared to mention American Civil War. What did him and his speechwriters think? That students in Cairo don’t know about that? He could have said that rights and freedoms for people of color in the US were finally won by peaceful means (albeit enforced by the federal government guns), and not by the bloody civil war in which so many people perished fighting for the industrial elites of the North against the slave-holding elites of the South. This would make his message stronger, because it would pre-empt criticism that he is mendacious, when advocating peaceful struggle for liberation to Palestinians by an example of the peaceful struggle by colored people in the US, in spite of the historical fact that slavery was indeed abolished only by a very ugly war. “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.” is a very strong soundbite. But it should have been coupled with a similar one that would address Israeli violence against Gaza, too. This speech might have failed to make converts in Cairo, the way it went.