Now Walk the Walk

President Obama’s speech was better than expected, but less than what I was hoping for. We know that he can give a good speech, and he certainly did that in Cairo. However, I think that in his attempt to be balanced, he came out sounding too balanced, especially on democracy and human rights.

Probably he was trying to be careful not to offend his hosts, but as I said in my New York Times op-ed, I was hoping that he would speak directly to the leaders in the same way that he did in his inaugural speech when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

However, I understand why he was cautious when he talked about democracy and human right, and I can’t blame him. He obviously wants to distance himself from the rhetoric and policies of the previous administration, and I guess that’s why he also did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Still, I think that in the few words he said on democracy he made several good and important points:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away (…)

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

In any case, he had too much ground to cover, and therefore it was only normal that he would choose to focus on some issues more than others. I think the way he talked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was different than what we usually hear from American presidents. Yes, he said the bond with Israel is unbreakable, but for the first time we hear a US president talk about “Palestine,” not just the Palestinian people, and use words like intolerable and humiliation to describe their suffering. It was also good that he dedicated parts of his speech to religious freedom and women’s rights, two issues where there is much to be done, especially here in Saudi Arabia.

Over all I think the speech was a good start for a frank dialogue between America and the Muslim world, but now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward. “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” Obama said at the end of his speech. Count me in. I, for one, want to remake this world, starting from here.

UPDATE 6/6/09: David Brooks described the part on democracy as “stilted and abstract — the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate”:

But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.

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32 thoughts on “Now Walk the Walk

  1. I tend to disagree with u on this. I see nothing new in Obama speech other than softness in the language and his try to move the Muslims emotionally. What he said about Israel is not new, even Bush talked about the Palestinian state.

    As for democracy, he basically wouldn’t pressure the Arab governments, because he needs them in fixing all the disasters made by Bush. He will use democracy weapon only when the Arab governments don’t (help) enough.

    I think Obama is a good person, however, He is much weaker than the forces that actually control the policies in the US.

  2. Essam Al-Zamel:

    I agree that Obama “is much weaker than the forces that actually control the policies in the US.”

    However, the forces of national interest will always be much stronger than that of a national leader.

    I agree that he will not “pressure the Arab governments” regarding democracy.

    However, is that not our duty? We are Arabs living in Arab nations.

    I was disappointed that while he praised the religion of the Rasulullah, he did not also temper that with the point that the clerical establishment in our country is often very far from what our religion truly teaches.

    I was intrigued by the point he made that we must all say publicly those things that we say privately.

    I would ask everyone in our country, what are the things that we could say publicly that we only generally say privately today?

  3. It is because the President understand that:
    Democracy needs tolerance.
    Democracy needs acceptance.
    Democracy needs unity.
    Democracy needs maturity.
    This region is too important and strategically vital for the United States to risk.

  4. I think his speech had many excellent moments, and was surprised and impressed that he made a concrete promise to aid in improving women’s literacy and their financial status through microfinancing.

    I thought he fudged around why the Palestinians are in search of a homeland “too”, and was disingenuous in saying they have never had a safe and secure homeland.

    He is a good orator and has made some good policy decisions, but he is mired in what he has inherited and what a leader in the US can do taking into consideration Congress and the Senate. Still he has more backing than Clinton had, and his tone and positionns are an infinite improvement on those of Bush.

    It is absolutely true that Arab countries must lead the way in their own reform.

  5. “now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward.”

    Why is it that only America must do the deeds? There will be no moving forward (or only “glacial” progress) for your region with an attitude such as that. Ultimately, reform must come from within. Freedom is not easily won, nor cheaply bought. America cannot deliver it to you.

  6. First, let me complement you on an excellent Op-Ed piece. Being a freelance writer, I don’t know if there was more and it was edited out, but it expressed your points very well.

    Canadian brings up an important point as well: the world, and the region where you live should not expect the America to be the only one to back up words with deeds. Peace and societal progress do not operate in a vacuum. While we certainly carry a large burden with regards to our overall responsibilities to the Middle East, it will be an endless cycle of the same rhetoric if change cannot be realized from internal, as well as external forces.

    “My friends and I always talk about leaving the country. We want to live in a place where we can be ourselves.” – Completely understandable, and part of what has been the driving force for immigration to the U.S. for 2 centuries. At the same time, if so many young people like yourselves abandon your country, how can it hope to effect the change that you so desperately desire? I’m suspecting that this is a paradox that you wrestle with yourself, no?

  7. Andrew,

    I totally agree with you regarding the point that “We” should change the situation in our countries rather than external forces, actually we “don’t” want other to force things their way like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan and cause chaos along theway.

    However, we all know that the rulers won’t be able to stay in power for couple of months if the western support to them ceased to exist. So, they are NOT only NOT pressuring leaders to change, they are also the main support for them to continue.

  8. Essam Al-Zamel:

    Regarding your statement: “we all know that the rulers won’t be able to stay in power for couple of months if the western support to them ceased to exist.”

    I would just say that I strongly disagree regarding our own country.

    Our leadership is dominated by national interest, like those of may other countries.

    Western support certainly assists our leadership in many ways, but I do not agree at all with what you say.

    Our leadership is dependent on internal support.

    In many ways, I would assert that your idea can become an easy excuse for a point of view that suggests that no action be taken by our own Arab people.

    The argument that I perceive to be proposed is that no action should be taken, because the countries are totally dependent on foreign powers, and so only foreign powers could accomplish change. This argument adds as a corollary, therefore, the idea that no personal effort needs to be made, because it is all futile.

    I would just say that I believe that this too is incorrect.

    However, what is true is that change is very difficult to accomplish given our conservative practices.

    I also agree with Ahmed that there is an element of generational difference, particularly amongst well-educated.

  9. Thanks Ahmed. Your writings are always insightful and thought provoking. I find myself in full agreement with what you wrote about Obama’s speech. But I am afraid the impact of his words will be passing and short-lived. The realities in our part of the world are so bleak and grim. Obama, no matter how honest and fair he may be, can not change that much. The real problem lies in the US’ blind and unconditional support for Israel which, through its ceaseless war crimes and human rights violations in Palestine, has irrevocably destroyed the US’ image in this region and worldwide.
    How can poor Obama change pro Israel congress or the American political culture which looks at Israel as a victim not a murderer?
    Yes, Obama may be a good guy and he wants to make peace. But what kind of peace if the so called honest broker, not only adopts in full the occupiers’ position, but provides them with bullets and dollars to continue enslaving another people and kill as many innocent women and children as possible?!
    When we think of what is happening to the downtrodden Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli war criminals and their benefactors, then words like democracy and human rights become empty, irrelevant and meaningless.
    Thanks.

  10. Andrew,

    I was actually not referring to Saudi, Gulf countries may be in a better position because of the economical situation.

    However, countries like Egypt, with better freedom of press and more matuarity in democracy may have better chance in making changes, if the western support is to be lift. Of course, Egypt will have huge effect on other countries, and what happens in Egypt may cause a domino effect on other Arab countries.

    I agree with you, that people in the Arab world shouldn’t have the west support as an excuse for doing nothing. However, when someone ask for Help from the west to make a change, or when the west criticise the Arab people for lack of democracy, we would tell them, all we want from you is to ask your leaders to stop supporting the tyrants in the area, and leave the rest to the people.

    Regards,

  11. Anyone interested in the mainstream educated North American Jewish pro-Israel response to Obama’s speech might like to read David Frum’s editorial (David Frum is the former Dubya speech writer who contributed the term “axis of hate” which was modified to “axis of evil”):
    http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1666224

    A more valid set of analyses (imho), from Muslim professors, and a linguistics professor, is here:
    http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1666224

    While the National Post is a right wing pro-Israel Canadian newspaper they occasionally try to appear balanced, and have more equitable articles.

  12. I totally feel your enthusiasm Ahmad, and I too want to remake My world..
    I thought Obama’s speech was refreshing in the sense that he called a spade a spade..he stated non-sugar-coated facts, and gave an inspiring formula to solve it…

  13. Essam Al-Zamel,

    Thank you for the helpful clarification.

    I know little about Egypt, so I have no views.

    I agree that we should tell foreigners to not support tyrants.

    However, we must expect that foreign governments will act on the basis of self-interest, and that foreign governments will support tyrants when their self-interest demands it.

    We should be realistic. Until the time that people themselves, and in very large numbers, are prepared to require changes be made, change is unlikely to occur.

    I would also say that the honesty sought by Obama was refreshing.

    To Prometheus:

    I understand your point to be that as long as injustice occurs outside our nation, then “words like democracy and human rights become empty, irrelevant and meaningless”

    I disagree.

    We must achieve greater levels of human rights in our country.

    The fact that injustice occurs outside our own country does not make the concepts within our own country irrelevant.

    If we accede to that idea, we will never accomplish our aspirations here, in our own country.

    Regarding Obama’s request for greater honesty,
    I would again ask of everyone, what are the ideas that we express privately that we should say publicly?

  14. As a Saudi ,I used to think of the American policy as something that doesn’t care if the middle east get torn apart by it’s own problems .Now we see a change in direction . USA is interested .I hope the Eagerness of this wanting to see a change in the middle east doesn’t fade away .

  15. “I would again ask of everyone, what are the ideas that we express privately that we should say publicly?”

    No takers? I’ll bite.

    Why is is that all of the most “advanced” societies are also the most secular?

    I would posit that any society organized on the basis of 1500 year old stories has dim prospects.

    “the clerical establishment in our country is often very far from what our religion truly teaches.”

    Well, that’s your opinion. I don’t know what your credentials are, but the most senior of Islamic scholars seem to hold a different view.

    Which speaks to part of the problem of theocracy – too much room for interpretation.

  16. Canadian,

    For Christianity vs. secularism, yes, it makes sense, because Christianity was almost always anti-science.

    However, we have a religion that endorse science and does Not contradict it. And the Islamic civilization has been the most advanced in the world even longer that the latest (Western) advancement.

  17. bwah-ha-ha!

    Muslim scientists rediscovered classical knowledge and advanced it despite Islam and not because of it. Much as happened in Christian Europe some centuries later.

    You have an increadible bias.

    If Islam “endorses science” and Christianity has been “anti-science” why has the field of science been (massively) dominated by the West for six centuries? Zionist conspiracy?

    Literacy and education indicators in the “Muslim world”, overall, are very poor. Virtually no technology or scientific advancement comes out of these areas of the world. But Islam has always “endorsed science”, while Christianity has oppressed it, eh?

    Unbelievable.

    You’re typing English (the international lingua franca for commerce, science, etc.). Your computer, cell phone, car, etc. etc was likely not designed or produced by a Muslim.

    For a scholarly, objective and thorough analysis of science in the Muslim world, see this article in the journal Middle East Quarterly:

    “Why Does the Muslim World Lag in Science?”
    http://www.meforum.org/306/why-does-the-muslim-world-lag-in-science

    Essam, I feel your comment legitimizes my notion that (many) Saudis are:
    a) religious fanatics.
    b) fundamentally ignorant of history.
    c) fiercely racist and supremacist.
    d) seemingly incapable of rational analysis.

    Your head is full of crap to prop up your deluded little world!

  18. So Islam is better than secularism?

    Note that Islam is most ‘fully implemented’ in places like KSA, Iran, and areas of other countries (eg. rural Pakistan).

    The Arab nostalgia for the ‘golden years’ is ridiculous. Everyone should be proud of their culture, and the blossoming of Muslim society was glorious… but it didn’t last – the West has brought us farther than the Muslim world ever has (go for a drive lately, talk on a phone, use a fridge?). The Muslim renissance is highly interesting in its own right; but nowadays it seems mostly to be used to distract attention from more modern times.

    Yes, I have heard of the Dark Ages.

    It’s 2009.

    Oh, and I enjoy a beautiful, spiritually fulfilled life here in Canada…. it’s pretty good.

  19. To: canadian
    I see how you feel about Religion in general..Most of it is not far from true There is really not much to defend about anything here in Saudi ..Most of the brains here are too damaged by the “Muttawa’een” to give you a valid response.I just guess that Arabs succeeded in Spain due to the liberal atmosphere and tolerance that were flourishing back then ..
    .

  20. Mans. H,

    Thanks for the response. I think you’re right; but I think there were also many other reasons.

    Abs Yasin,

    I agree completely with your sentiment.

    Interesting article. I believe it amply illustrates a major step that must be taken. (notice also the featured video next to the article entitled: “Islam Needs a Secular State” – although I didn’t watch it.).

    You hear a lot that Islam is the ‘religion of peace’ because it says all these great things.

    I quote Mr. Rauf from the article:

    “Religious freedom is at the core of Islam. The Quran expressly and unambiguously prohibits the coercion of faith because that violates a fundamental human right – the right to a free conscience. The Quran says in one place “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” And in another it says, “To you your beliefs and to me, mine.”

    Isn’t it strange that Islam compels freedom of religion…. since, Muslim countries don’t seem to be very tolerant of other religions, or people who try to leave Islam for another religion. Apostasy is punishable by death in some areas, no? So, are we sure that Islam doesn’t say something else, somewhere, about religious freedom? It just might explain the present state of religious freedom in the Muslim world, eh?

    My understanding is that Islam’s teachings were peacefull and conciliatory in the early days, when it was in a minority position; but that it took on a whole new flavour later on, and, due to the principle of ‘abrogation’, it is that ‘flavour’ that is interpreted to be correct. So you get things like “whoever changes his religion, kill him” – and the resultant state of religious (in)tolerance in the Muslim, and especially, Arab worlds.

    Those who emphasize early teachings while glossing over some of the later ones (and conceal the tradition of abrogation are, IMHO:
    a) cowards, for not facing difficult things, and
    b) liars.

    If Islam compels freedom of religion if it the “cornerstone” of the “religion of peace”, then why are Islamic countries so intolerant of other religions? In KSA you have religious aparthide, for pete’s sake!!! Why IS that?

    How about a little critical thinking and reading, guys.

  21. There is a huge force in Saudi Arabia scheme of things applied on the people so not to drop religion ,,i sometimes wonder why our guys are so afraid from that.Is it the thought that Islam will vanish if people are set free to believe whatever they want to believe !! Then this kind of monoply lead us to think that there is a weakness in the religion or there is no religion at all !! I wish someone is able to teach philosophy in Saudi schools and let the new generation question their existence.That definitly will be a major change in the history of the kingdom .

  22. in one place “There shall be no compulsion in religion.” And in another it says, “To you your beliefs and to me, mine.”

    Isn’t it strange that Islam compels freedom of religion…. since, Muslim countries don’t seem to be very tolerant of other religions, or people who try to leave Islam for another religion. Apostasy is punishable by death in some areas, no? So, are we sure that Islam doesn’t say something else, somewhere, about religious freedom? It just might explain the present state of religious freedom in the Muslim world, eh?

    I used to think this too. After I educated myself on the meaning of the quoted Qur’anic phrase, it just means non-Muslims should not be forced to convert to Islam unless/until they really are called to it. Anyone disagree?
    anthrogeek10

  23. “If Islam compels freedom of religion if it the “cornerstone” of the “religion of peace”, then why are Islamic countries so intolerant of other religions? In KSA you have religious aparthide, for pete’s sake!!! Why IS that?”

    This is an issue that bothers many I suspect. Historically, when the Rightly Guided Caliphs started to expand into other areas of the Middle East, “religious freedom” was mainly to keep the peace for the ability to collect revenues. Non-Muslims had to pay a tax. That started in the Umayyad Empire. The Muslims wanted to expand and conquer. The Umayyad Empire was not an Islamic Empire as it was an Arab one. Conversions to Islam were discouraged for financial reasons.

    This is an interesting topic. My best guess would be that KSA believes that Islam is the *only* way to God and so follows suit with policies of other religions.

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