Though it is still early in his presidency, Barack Obama is moving aggressively to change the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Long the “third rail” of U.S. politics domestically and internationally, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has been an Achilles heel for successive American presidents. Even Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President, Jimmy Carter, who advanced the cause of peace in the Middle East more than any American President, has come under attack for his critique of the conflict in two books and his criticism of the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States. The one area of international relations has tripped up any opportunity to construct a healthier relationship with the Arab world.
President Obama’s address at Cairo University last week marked a significant moment in his presidency and a real milestone in our nation. The underlying tension in the United States over the Middle East is the manner in which Americans view Islam, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001, and the manner in which the religion is associated with terrorism. Recent polls indicate that public perceptions of Islam and Muslims are eroding at the very time political winds are shifting in the Middle East and domestically in the United States. President Obama’s race and family background, his father was a Muslim, gives him a unique platform on which to forge an international consensus on the path to peace in the Middle East.
His speech in Cairo was his first attempt to publically challenge the domestic view of Islam and reassure Muslims around the world that he is not playing favorites in the Middle East. The remarks also sent a very clear signal that Mr. Obama does not conjoin Islam and terrorism, and that he remains steadfast in his goal to bring Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to justice. By calling out bin Laden, the President also sent a message to Islamic leaders that he was making a distinction between law-abiding practitioners of the faith and those who used the religion to justify their violent acts.
What distinguished President Obama’s remarks last week in Cairo was the comfort at which he addressed the gathered leaders and the degree to which he sought to downplay differences by using history as his backdrop. His opening greeting and conveying of the greeting – Assalaamu alaykum – from American Muslims gave the world community a different picture of an American presidency. One of the most important aspects of the President’s speech was the manner in which he wove Islam into American history and pointed out its many contributions to Western civilization. His reference to Presidents
President Obama also did not shy away from commenting on the perception of America held by many Muslims around the world. He challenged, “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words -- within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum -- "Out of many, one.”
Drawing upon the parallel negative perceptions of Muslims and Americans, held by each other, President Obama created the political space to challenge all sides to advance their thinking regarding self-determination for free people in the Middle East and America. He borrowed from his own unique standing as the first Black President of the United States, confronting some of the bias that was directed toward him during his historic run for the presidency while also placing his struggle in the larger context of American Muslims. President Obama noted, “Now, much has been made of the fact that an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores -- and that includes nearly 7 million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average.”
At the heart of the issue that serves as the backdrop for the President’s Cairo speech is the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the need to create a sovereign Palestinian state. His use of the word “Palestine” will be taken throughout the Muslim world as his commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East. The President said clearly, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” While challenging both sides to cease violence, Mr. Obama unequivocally endorsed Palestinian statehood. “The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”