Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama Expands the “Base”

Jerusalem - With a respectful but forceful tone, President Obama did what he does best in Cairo – he educated the public about the problems that we face in a way that was intellectually grounded, empathetic, and clear. If you consider the audience that President Obama was appealing to, his speech was a homerun in that it opened the door with large silent majorities for relationships based upon mutual interests.

The Cairo speech, dubbed “A New Beginning” was a policy overview of US interests in the Muslim World wrapped in a cultural overture to people of Islamic faith. President Obama quoted from the Koran and he used the language of the moment, beginning his speech with “Salaam Aleykum,” and dabbling in other cultural niceties, such as saying “peace be upon them” when referring to Islam’s prophets.

Beyond the culturally respectful framework, the speech was a clear and unapologetic overview of America’s priorities and interests amid the tangle of varying problems in the Muslim World. The President focused on seven issues: confronting extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; Iran and nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and economic development and opportunity. With all of these issues, the President neither pandered nor preached. He explained US positions and intentions truthfully and eloquently while also clearing a path for cooperation with those who seek to partner in solutions.

I found seven points especially noteworthy in the President’s speech:

1) On the issue of confronting extremism, President Obama took on the conspiracy theorists. His stark description of al Qaeda’s actions as related to 9/11 and his delivery of the statement that, “These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with” was very strong. There are still many throughout the Muslim World who refute al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, and lay blame elsewhere, particularly with Israel and the Mossad.

2) President Obama implicitly acknowledged the mistakes of the Iraq war and the torture of detainees, but he did not offer apologies. This was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that to apologize to this audience would be to accept a false linkage concerning the Muslim World. Apologies are issued to the people who were wronged, whether by direct actions or by actions undertaken in their name. The audience at Cairo University or watching in Bangladesh or Indonesia may be outraged observers on these issues, but they don’t deserve an apology any more than a Catholic in Rome or a Hindu in Bombay.

3) Obama was masterful in expressing empathy for Israelis and for Palestinians. Similar to his comments on 9/11, his words on the Holocaust and the tone in which he delivered them were important to deflating conspiracy theories. Given Obama’s personal story and achievement, it can’t be emphasized enough what a unique messenger he is to the Muslim World, but also to the developing world. Obama has a credibility and authenticity to him that will allow many people to accept his well-constructed arguments as an authoritative source. On issues such as this one, as well as religious freedom and women’s rights, he can lead a revolution in thinking.

In addition, by raising Israeli settlements – though his actual language does not make clear whether settlements or settlement building needs to stop, a big difference – and speaking to the details of occupation, the President did something important vis-à-vis Hamas. He recognized Hamas as part of the Palestinian political spectrum and called on them to take on their responsibilities. Contrary to the wishes of many, Hamas is not a foreign usurper who will melt away. They have true local support and they will have to be integrated into any future Palestinian political framework to some degree for a Palestinian state and a peace agreement to be possible. By alluding to Palestinian unity, Obama spoke to the issue that is most important to Palestinians today.

4) On the point of supporting democracy, it was no accident that the President thanked his hosts, the Egyptian people. He mentioned al-Azhar, Cairo University, and the “timeless city” itself. He did not mention President Mubarak – a departure from protocol and a clear message. There was a lot of concern about President Obama’s choice of locations for this speech given the Egyptian government’s human rights record and almost three decades of emergency rule. This omission was as strong as any of his words on governance, human rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights.

5) Obama’s points on economic development and opportunity as well as education and women’s empowerment were significant. For Americans watching the speech, this is the area where we can come forward as unofficial ambassadors to contribute to the “new beginning” and to work on the human development issues that are the root of many of the problems that the President raised. President Obama put out some general ideas as well as some hefty commitments from women’s education to science to health issues. As is the case with the other policy points, there will have to be follow-up with programming and initiatives to make these commitments whole. As important, Americans will have to step forward to participate in these programs and to offer their time, efforts, and expertise.

6) If I were a Hindu or Buddhist watching this speech, I would feel left out to the point of being offended. The President referred to “non-Muslims” in the speech, but given the great efforts he made to weave together a common cloth of the three monotheistic religions, the exclusion of non-monotheist religions in the religious freedom section of the speech was glaring. The genocide in Darfur, the India-Pakistan relationship, and the treatment of third country nationals in the Gulf, in particular, are all areas that demonstrate a need for greater religious freedom and tolerance in the Muslim World.

7) Lastly, the speech did not contain a foreign policy bombshell. To many people around the world, Barack Obama appears to be a grand departure from previous U.S. leadership. Certainly, in some ways he is very different. But he is not a revolutionary in the sense that some in the Muslim World were hoping for. The United States isn’t going to assume the historic burden of guilt for western colonialism, transfer wealth from North to South, abandon our relationship with Israel, nor seriously consider the liturgy of populist leaders whose logic is based in schemes and conspiracies. If that wasn’t clear before, it is today.

Yesterday’s speech in Cairo was an overture to America’s world “base.” President Obama spoke to the silent majority of fence sitters – the people who are deciding how they feel about America and how they feel about their own involvement in their communities. Since World War II, and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, America has been the world’s leader. Over the last eight years though, people throughout the Muslim World and the developing world have begun to ask questions like: is America still worth listening to and partnering with? Will America help me improve my life and my community? And significantly, is America a just power?

From the text of the speech to its delivery to the messenger himself, President Obama gave Muslims around the world reasons to answer “yes” to these questions and to be willing to judge the United States and Americans by our future actions on these outlined issues. In that regard, more important than anything President Obama said will be turning his words to deeds and his policy statements and plans into actual accomplishments. President Obama earned America a “new beginning” yesterday with that base of fence sitters, but it is up to all of us – at home and abroad, in government and within civil society – to do something with that beginning and not to squander this moment.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Obama in Cairo – An Opportunity to Open the Door for More Unofficial Ambassadors

Jerusalem – Tomorrow in Cairo, Barack Obama will address the Muslim World. His speech is an opportunity to redefine the relationship between America and the Muslim World and to challenge us to personally contribute to confronting problems that threaten us all.

Presidential speeches delivered to audiences that numbers in tens or even hundreds of millions are a big deal. They are a moment for grand ideas and an opportunity to deliver a vision or political horizon. President Obama has already committed to a timetable for Iraq as well as to closing down Guantanomo; and he is also at work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are the overarching political issues that interest a lot of the people in the Muslim World. It doesn’t seem necessary to use such a stage to re-commit to goals and processes already set in motion just a few months ago. People are looking for action on these fronts, not a repetition of promises. So what will the President say in Egypt?

I hope that President Obama will reach below the layer of international conflicts that plague parts of the Muslim World and speak about the core human development problems that afflict many Muslim-majority countries. Dictatorial and corrupt governments, the absence of economic opportunities, poor education systems, and unequal and unempowered women are characteristics of many of the countries whose populations President Obama will be speaking to on Thursday, including his hosts in Egypt (and Saudi yesterday). Throughout the Muslim World, why is it that political systems are characterized by authoritarian rule? Or that women suffer from an absence of opportunities in every sector of society? To his credit, George W. Bush asked these questions and gave a couple of powerful speeches about the universal right to liberty.

In some cases, the messenger can be as important as the message, though. For many in the Middle East, the election of Barack Obama was not just a seminal moment in America’s history, but a turning point in their own personal evaluations of what is possible in life. President Obama is the ultimate spokesperson for a campaign to build empowerment and opportunities. In each place that I’ve lived or traveled in the Muslim World, I’ve found that on a popular level, the appeal of America is its people, culture, and open system. Our foreign policies may be almost unanimously opposed, but the promise of our rags to riches stories is the stuff of dreams. And nothing embodies the possibility of America as a land of dreams more than the election of a biracial son of an African immigrant to the most powerful position in the world.

Similar to his speech on race last year, President Obama has the potential to challenge the status quo, in this case the stagnant systems and authoritarian leadership of many of the countries in the Muslim World. He could question the personal accountability of his audience and call upon community leaders and young people to lead the way in taking responsibility for creating change in their own societies.

There is no guarantee that the right rhetoric, even delivered by the right messenger will equal success though. In fact, the problems that we talk about and work on in parts of the Muslim World are more than generational problems and they require long-term commitment and incredible personal will on the part of the people who want for change to occur. For this reason, if President Obama takes up the call for empowerment and opportunity growth, his speech must address not just his Muslim viewers, but the people who voted him to office last November.

While the President sets a vision, it is up to the rest of us to follow it and work towards its achievement. In this case, this means the strategic use of foreign assistance and diplomatic initiatives by our government, but that is not enough. The missing component since the 9/11 attacks has been the lack of an American service initiative in the Muslim World. America needs more unofficial ambassadors – global citizens who volunteer or work in the Muslim World.

Unofficial ambassadors, the embodiment of America’s appeal in this part of the world (the American people), can be the difference in communities from Morocco to Indonesia. From teachers to accountants to journalists to doctors there is integral work for Americans to do with civil society and government leaders who are trying to address the pressing human development challenges in their communities. Americans who can spend anywhere from a two week vacation to a year volunteering or working in their area of expertise can make contributions that not only help address some of these root causes, but also reinforce the positive Obamania images of our country.

What exactly do I mean? My latest example of an unofficial American ambassador making a difference is my father-in-law, Louis Kushner.

A few weeks ago, Louis, an expert mediator from Pittsburgh came for a short visit and volunteered his time to an ongoing Rule of Law training program in the Palestinian Territories. Louis taught a daylong mediation seminar and simulation to judges, representatives of the contractors’ union, and ministry of Justice officials. The training was based on methods that are universal, it was useful to the participants, and it was supportive of Rule of Law concepts that enable a society to settle a dispute through mediation rather than 1) litigation in an overburdened court system or 2) other less honorable means.

In addition to the formal training, Louis connected with the 20 Palestinian men and women attending the seminar on a personal level. Louis had never been to Ramallah and he found a vibrant city rather than the war zone he expected. He remarked to me several times how the training was almost the same as if he were doing it in Pittsburgh. Some of the disputes discussed were different but a lot of the questions were similar, and the people themselves were mostly the same.

At the same time, Palestinian participants were appreciative of the opportunity to learn from an American expert and to make the professional connection. Representatives of the contractors’ union were enthusiastic about using mediation to resolve payment disputes. At lunch, when I asked one contractor if any of this was useful, he pulled out his wallet, showed me a roll of unpaid promissory notes for past work, and said “definitely.”

Ideally, Louis would have stayed for a week or ten days and taught a comprehensive seminar; one day of mediation training alone will not resolve that engineer’s unpaid promissory notes. But the creation of cross-cultural linkages and the sharing of expertise is a fine start. In the case of Louis, he now has a better concept of the problems people face here and an open invitation to return for a longer training. The Palestinians he worked with have a better idea of how mediation can work in their society as well as a connection to an expert mediator in the United States.

I don’t expect President Obama to speak about the Louis Kushners of the world in Cairo, but I hope that he speaks to them, not just to the people of the Muslim World. The election of our new President offers a unique opportunity to correct some of our post 9/11 mistakes. One of these mistakes was not educating the public about how the human development challenges found in this part of the world impact our national security. Another mistake was not encouraging Americans to do our share in addressing these challenges.

Tomorrow, Barack Obama has the chance to speak to these issues on a pretty large stage. Insha’allah, he won’t miss this monumental opportunity.

No, There is a “Muslim World”

Jerusalem - In the run-up to President Obama’s address to the “Muslim World” in Cairo on June 4, a number of experts have declared that the “Muslim World” is a figment of Usama bin Laden’s ideology. They argue that by accepting a division of the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, President Obama is entering into a field of play into which we as multicultural pluralistic Americans who cherish the separation of church and state can’t possibly succeed. While this is true to some degree it is an oversimplified argument.

Americans certainly have no interest in dividing the world between us and them on any category – Muslims vs. non-Muslims, men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, etc. Our society is based upon the concept that there is strength in diversity and that there are equal rights and the rule of law for all. We do not want to force Muslims to choose their identity as a Muslim (or any other specific identity) over other ties that bind – nationality, ethnicity, gender, and world-view for example. Our society and culture succeeds through inclusion, not by making people choose A and reject B.

So, of course it is a mistake to address Muslims from Indiana to Indonesia with the assumption that each individual prioritizes foreign policy issues based upon his or her religion. The issues of Palestine, Iraq, and Pakistan are important, but for a British teenager in London whose Muslim parents emigrated from India, do these issues trump anti-Muslim discrimination? Or for a 40-year old mother of nine in Sanaa, do these foreign policy concerns matter more than low literacy rates and high unemployment rates of women in Yemen? I don’t think so.

But the U.S. President hasn’t gone to Egypt in search of a new Caliph who will represent the views of all Muslims worldwide. President Obama has demonstrated that he is culturally and intellectually aware enough to understand that the Muslim World is not a united monolithic bloc with a joint platform of priorities that transcends all other concerns. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that at some point in his speech he will offer language that praises the diversity and therefore strength of the Muslim World.

What critics of the use of the term “Muslim World” shortchange is that while there may be more divisions than connections amongst Muslims worldwide, there is undoubtedly a “Muslim World.” The Muslim World is the space and the community that is interested in issues related to Islam. It isn’t a world of borders per se, but of shared ideas and interests that range from discussions about the Koran, to “call to prayer” cell phone ring tones, to foreign policy issues related to the persecution of Muslim minorities. If not the “Muslim World,” than what should we call this intersection and collection of interests among people who practice the faith of Islam? In the same way that there is a Muslim World, there is a Catholic World, an Arab World, a Women’s World, and even a Runners’ World. The list could go on.

If President Obama wanted to go to the Sixth and I Synagogue in DC or to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and give an address to the “Jewish World” about his policy on Israeli settlements, I would be quite happy. Perhaps because of my belief that President Obama is intellectually capable of making the distinction between Jewish Americans, Jewish Israelis, and Jewish Iranians, I would be very interested in hearing the President’s thoughts on issues that jointly impact the “Jewish World” and Americans. I would hope that the President would put his policy on settlements into the full context of international law and the peace process and educate the public about the choices that America is making and why.

I have similar hopes for President Obama’s address to the Muslim World. The President has already committed to an Iraq timetable and the closing of Guantanamo – two of the biggest political issues of interest in the “Muslim World” – so maybe he will address some of the human development problems, such as the absence of personal freedoms and economic opportunities that characterize life in many Muslim majority countries. Or perhaps he will discuss the gap in understanding that has grown between the general American public and Muslims since the 9/11 attacks. These are both worthy topics. There is little reason to express outrage about the proposed audience and to deny Muslims all over the world as well as Americans the opportunity to hear more about these issues and hopefully chart a course in dealing with them.