Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Muslim message


WASHINGTON—If it ain't broke, the saying goes, don't fix it. And so it was that the Muslim world got to hear the 2009 version of Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech.

In the first rendition before a swarm of fellow party members, though aimed at a national audience, Obama assured Americans that we are not a nation of Red States and Blue States.

"There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Four years later, Obama was elected president of those United States.

At Cairo University Thursday, Obama delivered essentially the same message on a slightly grander scale—telling the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, as well as the planet at large:

"The interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."

The nearly hour-long speech, which contained many inspired passages, was essentially a teaching moment. A lecture, if you will.

Here's the lesson: We have to get along or we're all doomed. Freedom works; oppression doesn't. Your homework: Clear your mind of the past, evict stereotypes, and join the global future.

Beyond delivering core messages of partnership and a new beginning based on mutual understanding and respect, Obama made three big scores: He essentially neutralized Osama bin Laden. He managed to call Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a hateful ignoramus without ever mentioning his name.

And, he affirmed Western values of democracy, human rights, religious freedom and women's right to self-determination—all while making Muslims feel complimented, appreciated and understood.

No small feats.

To delegitimize the man whose name rhymes with his, Obama had only to show up and not be George W. Bush. Osama the cave-dweller's latest blurt, timed to pre-empt Obama's speech, was more pathetic than threatening—the muffled bleat of an emasculated warrior powerless against an enemy he can no longer demonize.

Osama is the withered and quivering Gollum—seething with envy and nursing his precious hatred—to Obama's robust and hope-driven Frodo. The forces of darkness and light personified.

Obama similarly defused the nutty nuke-chaser, Ahmadinejad. Obama was talking about Iran's alleged desire for access to "peaceful" nuclear power and his own goal for a nuke-free world.

Whether Obama's approach to Iran is naive or workable can be debated elsewhere. He makes perfect sense in a perfectly sensible world. Most sane people want to live without the nagging threat of obliteration. And most would agree that reasonable people have the right to access nuclear power for nonviolent purposes.

But we know Iran's president to be un-sane and un-reasonable. Just the day before Obama's Cairo speech, Ahmadinejad repeated his belief that the Holocaust was a "big deception."

In his own remarks, Obama said that denying the fact of the Holocaust is "baseless," "ignorant" and "hateful." If Ahmadinejad didn't recognize himself, surely the rest of the world did, including Iranians who will vote in their country's presidential election this month.

Finally, Obama was unflinching in defending American values, though he characterized them not as uniquely American values but as human rights.

Listening to the speech, one couldn't help noticing (at times uneasily) the moments that prompted applause. Every time Obama quoted scripture from the Koran or conceded errors in America's own history, the audience clapped. (The loudest applause, however, came when Obama spoke of democracy.)

Although it made sense to acknowledge Koranic wisdom as a way of showing respect for the audience, I kept thinking: Why not toss a few crumbs to the non-Muslim boys and girls back home? If the message is our common humanity, why not demonstrate that commonality by showing parallels in Jewish and Christian texts?

This omission would have been my sharpest criticism of the speech if not for the fact that I was judging too soon. Obama saved the best for last.

This time echoing his presidential campaign, Obama said: "We have the power to make the world we seek yes we can!, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning fired up, ready to go!, keeping in mind what has been written."

Then he quoted verses from the Koran, the Talmud and the Bible that all pointed toward peace. He wrapped up with the ultimate plea for hope and change:

"The people of the world can live together in peace," said Obama. "We know that is God's vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth."

Hey, it worked in 2008.

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