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Obama’s candour in timeless Cairo

Barack Obama’s speech in Egypt on Thursday is quite simply one of the most important articulations....

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
June 7, 2009 3:44:49 am

Barack Obama’s speech in Egypt on Thursday is quite simply one of the most important articulations by any world leader on the relationship between Islam and the West—indeed,between Islam and the rest of the world. The first sentence in his speech—”I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo”—is,outwardly,a tribute to the hoary civilisational past of the country and its capital. But the choice of the word ‘timeless’ also befits several themes and thoughts that flow through the speech like meandering River Nile. It is heartening to see the president of the United States approach many global issues,including issues that have created a problematic relationship between America and the Muslim community,from the standpoint of truth and justice. He made the Holy Koran’s injunction “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth” the touchstone of his speech and said,“That is what I will try to do—to speak the truth as best I can.” Like ‘truth’,the word ‘justice’ figured several times in his long,5,802-word speech.

Obama’s choice of Egypt for delivering his much-anticipated address to the Muslim world,and his resolve to be candid and honest,reminded me of what the late Naguib Mahfouz,Egypt’s greatest novelist,said in his speech while accepting the Nobel Prize in 2006. “I am the son of two civilisations that at a certain age in history have formed a happy marriage. The first of these,seven thousand years old,is the Pharaonic civilisation; the second,one thousand four hundred years old,is the Islamic one¿Gone now is that (first) civilization—a mere story of the past. One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.”

Obama’s speech reached the heights of greatness because he recognised both the mortality of human beings and the immortality of the ideals that ought to guide the journey of humanity. “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time,” he observed,and added words derived from the wisdom of the ages: “The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart,or whether we commit ourselves to an effort—a sustained effort—to find common ground,to focus on the future we seek for our children,and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”

He seemed sincere in his soul-searching. “It is easier to start wars than to end them; it is easier to blame others than to look inward.” He almost admitted that America’s war on Iraq was wrong. Stating that his policy would be “Leave Iraq to Iraqis”,he added,“I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases,and no claim on their territory or resources.” This is music to the ears of many fair critics of America. And so also is what he said on the other war that the US is engaged in. “Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonising for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.”

Obama is entitled to saying that “We will,however,relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” But we in India will judge him and his administration on the basis of whether they address the root of the problem,which is that terrorists in Pakistan are,and have all along been,protected and patronised by its military rulers. If the US is entitled to worry about,and take suitable steps for,its own security because “al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11”,isn’t India,which has lost 20 times more people in attacks by Pak-based terrorists over the past nearly three decades,even more entitled to do the same? This is a question that Indians must keep asking our American friends. And it is also a question that India must be ready to answer on its own.

Obama’s Cairo speech covered a broad array of issues,from religious freedom to women’s empowerment,from the tensions between globalisation and religious-cultural identities to the need to move towards a nuclear weapons-free world. He was most impassioned on the imperative to end the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of both sides. “Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims,and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra,when Moses,Jesus,and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.” I,a Hindu,await that day as keenly as any peace-loving Jew,Christian or Muslim.

I found two things missing in Obama’s speech. Firstly,he did not explore,even tangentially,the theological roots of religious intolerance and extremism. Secondly,he nowhere mentioned India in his descriptive,analytical or normative narrative. After all,India is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world. More important,in its own 1,400-year-old interaction with Islam,India has changed it in ways that would certainly interest Obama. And unlike Egypt,India’s pre-Islamic civilisation or spirituality did not simply vanish in this interaction. In talking about the “proud tradition of tolerance” in Islam,Obama says,“We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia,where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today.” Mr. Obama,if Indonesia,the most populous Muslim country in the world,presents a tolerant picture of Islam,it certainly has something to do with the civilisational and spiritual history of India.

(Write to: sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com)

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