President Obama's speech in Cairo yesterday was an attempt to
create deeper understanding between Americans and Muslims
throughout the world. However, the feel-good impact of the speech
is unlikely to last long or significantly change opinions about
America among those who oppose U.S. policies in the Middle East and
Many Muslims were receptive to President Obama's efforts to
demonstrate respect for Muslims and to stress common values. But
Obama missed an opportunity to clearly identify the common enemy:
Islamist extremists. Instead, he spoke of "violent extremists,"
shied away from using the term Islamist, and glossed over
terrorism, which continues to be a threat not only to Americans but
to Muslims as well.
A New Beginning with Muslims
President Obama called for a "new beginning" in U.S.--Muslim
relations based on "mutual interest and mutual respect." He
recognized the important contributions made by Muslims in arts,
sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and medicine and pledged to
fight against negative stereotypes of Muslims.
He also emphasized the need for more tolerance and the
safeguarding of diversity in Muslim-majority countries. He noted
the importance of protecting religious freedom for minorities and
suggested that Muslims need to be mindful of one another's
differences. He was also right to emphasize the importance of
The President also highlighted the success of Muslims in
America, noting that people from all races, creeds, and religions
have opportunity in America. But he should have gone further to
make the point that this is possible because of the rule of law and
democratic checks on authority.
It was also important that he talked about the founding
principles of America. This should happen more often in our public
diplomacy. It is much more productive than trying to promote
popular American culture as an instrument of public diplomacy,
which is a losing proposition.
He could have been more explicit, however, about non-violent
Islamist extremism and the dangers it poses to individual freedom
and religious liberty. He addressed it indirectly by expressing the
U.S. commitment to democratic values, but he should have provided
more moral support for Muslims around the world who are themselves
fighting against such ideologies.
By avoiding using the word Islamist, he is downplaying
the ideological underpinnings for terrorism and oppression. Obama
is right that we should not equate terrorism with the religion of
Islam, but we also need to be ready to engage in the battle of
ideas and be clear when Islamist ideologies contradict the ideals
of individual freedom and religious liberty.
Missteps on the Arab--Israeli Conflict
and Other Middle East Challenges
President Obama shared his personal experience of living in a
Muslim-majority country and sought to connect the civil rights
movement in the U.S. with the Palestinians' struggle for an
independent state. The problem with this comparison is the
Unlike the struggle for civil rights in America, there are
significant extremist and sometimes violent movements in the
Palestinian territories and broader Middle East dedicated to
Israel's destruction. This makes for a much more treacherous
problem. Establishing an independent Palestinian state is not
likely the end of Israel's existential insecurity. In fact, such a
state could pose a much more severe threat to Israel's security if
it reverts to terrorism and allies itself to Iran or other hostile
Moreover, President Obama also failed to make the point that
Muslims living in Israel have more civil rights and freedoms than
Muslims living under Hamas repression.
Obama also grossly understated the threat posed by Hamas to
Israel and to Palestinians themselves. He vaguely talked about
Hamas as if it is just another political party, without
acknowledging its revolutionary Islamist ideology, which rejects
not only peace negotiations but Israel's very existence.
And he echoed the Arab narrative in talking about "occupation"
and "humiliation" without mentioning the Arab attacks on Israel
that triggered repeated wars and the Palestinian terrorism that has
sabotaged past peace efforts. The Arabs could have created a
Palestinian state after 1948 but did not. Jordan occupied the West
Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza.
By raising Muslim expectations of a rapid movement to a peace
settlement that downplays Israel's security requirements and the
threat of continued terrorism, the President may be creating the
conditions for a dangerous backlash if these hopes are
Terrorism and the refusal to accept Israel's existence--not
Israeli settlements--are the chief obstacles to peace. In Israel,
the speech is likely to be perceived as an attempt to appease
Muslims at Israel's expense. There will be growing concern that the
Obama Administration is giving short shrift to Israel's security
needs and underplaying the threat of terrorism.
Iraq and Iran
Obama also criticized the Bush Administration's decision to go
to war in Iraq, calling it "a war of choice," without mentioning
that Saddam Hussein stubbornly failed to respond to several years
of multilateral diplomacy and instead chose to flout 16 U.N.
Security Council resolutions. If the U.S. had not led a coalition
to enforce those resolutions, Saddam's regime today would still be
systematically repressing and murdering Iraqis, threatening Iraq's
neighbors, and disrupting the peace and security of the Middle
President Obama also broke from past American foreign policy by
taking a very soft line on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear
weapons program and its strong support for terrorism. He repeated
his offer to engage Iran without preconditions and even went out of
his way to become the first sitting President to admit that the
U.S. played a role in overthrowing Iran's Mossadegh regime in 1953,
thereby implicitly vindicating the narrative of Iran's Islamist
revolutionaries. While this may earn the President some personal
popularity, it is unclear, to say the least, how this advances
American national interests in Iran or the Middle East.
Al-Qaeda Attempts to Upstage Obama
Al-Qaeda failed in its attempt to upstage the Obama speech.
Releasing two successive tapes this week, one on Tuesday by
al-Zawahiri and one on Wednesday purportedly recorded by Osama bin
Laden, al-Qaeda sought to portray Obama as an enemy of the Muslim
world who was sowing hatred among the Muslim community,
particularly with regard to U.S. policies toward Pakistan.
The videos demonstrate that al-Qaeda is worried about Obama's
ability to appeal to the Muslim community and is desperately
searching for ways to blunt his ability to do so. Al-Qaeda is
focusing its efforts on Pakistan, where U.S. policies are often
blamed for the rash of suicide bombings in the country over the
last two years.
Al-Qaeda may have erred by mentioning the situation in the Swat
Valley, however, since the Pakistani public has recently galvanized
behind the Pakistani military operations to oust the Taliban from
the region. Pakistanis are increasingly viewing the Taliban as
malevolent actors seeking to undermine the Pakistani state and its
Greater Clarity Needed
The al-Qaeda messages aimed at denigrating Obama's speech are a
reminder of the very real threat posed by a common nihilistic
enemy. In future speeches, President Obama should outline how the
U.S. and Muslims can cooperate to defeat that enemy.
Obama will also eventually have to address issues related to
Islamist ideologies that contradict ideals of individual freedom
and religious liberty. Speaking with greater clarity and authority
and devising a broader public diplomacy strategy to take them on is
necessary to counter the intellectual underpinnings and
justification for the terrorism and oppression that continues to
emanate from some Muslim countries.
Lisa Curtis is Senior
Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center and James Phillips is Senior
Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.