Busting Down Stereotypes In Cairo

U.S. President Barack Obama tours the Sphinx and pyramids outside Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Tarek Masoud is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School.

In the days leading up to president Obama's speech at Cairo University this morning, it appeared that expectations had become so extravagant that the end result could not hope to live up to them. Inexplicably, the president and those around him seemed to stoke those expectations: the president was reported to want to use his time at the lectern to "reconcile Islam and modernity," and the speech was billed as no less than an address to the entire Muslim world. We could be forgiven, then, for preemptively concluding that Obama's (and our) faith in his own rhetorical gifts had gone too far, that the president's outsized ambitions would finally meet their match against hard Middle Eastern and Islamic realities.

We should have known better. It is of course a commonplace to say that speeches don't change things--the president himself said something like that today--except that, like most commonplaces, it's wrong. American presidents wield enormous symbolic powers, and Obama wields more than most. His intonation of the traditional Islamic greeting, his repeated references to the "Holy" Qur'an and to what it teaches "us," his embrace of his middle name, his references to his Muslim ancestors and his Indonesian boyhood--these are rhetorical devices of considerable totemic power in a world that, rightly or wrongly, has in recent years felt itself hunted and abused by American power.

IslamOnline.net, one of the world's most highly-trafficked Islamic websites, conducted informal interviews with Muslims from Malawi to Egypt to India to Indonesia after the president's speech, and though there were the inevitable quibbles (a few said they were waiting for actions to back up Obama's words, and an electrician from Gaza wanted him to be tougher on Israel), that unscientific sample seemed to give Obama the thumbs up. One gentleman, described as a website editor from Khartoum in Sudan, saw in Obama's speech an attempt "toshow that the non-West could be an equal peer to the West; there was no sense of superiority." Al-Ahram, Egypt's major government-owned newspaper, tells us that the Shaykh of al-Azhar--the head of Sunni Islam's oldest institution of Islamic learning--found Obama's speech heartwarming, and reports that the cleric praised the president for drawing himself and his country closer to Muslim hearts and minds.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood--an Islamic political movement based in Egypt with branches throughout the Muslim world, and a generally reliable critic of the United States--was unable to find fault with the president's speech. In fact, the Brotherhood has issued no statement at all, advising us that its octogenarian leader will offer an official response on Saturday. It is almost as if the speech--with its unapologetic mixture of respect for Islam and the firm assertion of American interest--confused them into silence. One man, writing on the Muslim Brotherhood's online forum (www.ikhwan.net), muttered that Obama is "a mysterious personality that no one can understand." Another was so disconcerted by the American president's rhetorical success that he could only worry: "I fear for my people from a hypocrite with a loose tongue."

The president did not win the approbation of his Muslim audience by genuflecting before the received wisdoms of their world. In reaching out, the president was careful to remain true to our values. He highlighted the plight of religious minorities in the lands of Islam (including Egypt's Copts, an inclusion that no doubt made his hosts nervous), reaffirmed America's commitment to Israel, and preached the necessity of women's emancipation. While condemning American stereotypes of Muslims, he challenged Muslims to question their own stereotypes of America--a line that, surprisingly, earned applause. Even in Cairo, Obama has the ability win audiences by telling them hard truths.

Of course, one can quibble with parts the president's speech. Obama's talk of "America and Islam," as if Islam were a country or some other entity with which a nation could have relations (be they peaceful or conflictual), struck me as representative of an old fashioned view of the Muslim world as monolithic and unusually beholden to religion. Obama is smart enough to know that America's problem is not with Islam. It should not be forgotten that some of the most vehement protesters of Obama's visit (many of whom are now cooling their heels in police detention until the president departs) are members of Kifaya, a liberal, pro-democracy movement made up of secular-minded Egyptians. These people would probably take offense at the president's lumping them under the banner of Islam, as if their opposition to America were driven by their religious identity as opposed to their principled disagreement with our policies. What makes the protestors of Kifaya angry is not that America is "hostile to the traditions of Islam," but that America in their view violates its own traditions of democracy and respect for liberty by supporting the kind of autocratic regimes that run Egypt and its neighbors.

But these are minor complaints. Obama today did much to repair America's image in the Muslim world, and to recapture a fair measure of the goodwill that was frittered away over the last 8 years. Now we wait to see what he does with it.

Obama's Trip: Complete Coverage