A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Response to Obama's Cairo Speech

I was asked by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington D.C. to contribute a short response to Obama's Cairo speech to be compiled with other comments from scholars and experts on the Middle East and North Africa. These comments will be forwarded to Mr. Obama. The following is the text of my response:

Mr. Obama's speech to the Muslim world hit most of the major notes he was supposed to address. His eloquent speech is not a general policy formulation towards the Muslim world, but extended a much needed olive branch to the Muslim world after eight years of marginalization and short-term political goals. Having said that, Mr. Obama's has to show us his concrete plans for revamping the Arab-Israeli peace process and more importantly to demonstrate a true commitment to political reforms.

A change in tone is not sufficient to reverse years of irresponsible US foreign policy in the Middle East and towards the Muslim world. No longer can the US turn a blind eye as the Muslim world sinks deeper and deeper into political and economic decay. In his speech, Mr. Obama never promoted the building of democratic institutions and devoted little space for democracy promotion. He generally noted that the governments “should reflect the will of the people” and that citizens should “have a say” in how they are governed. His administration has shown an awkward pragmatism in its foreign policy by sacrificing human rights and political reforms for the sake of regional and global stability. This was particularly clear in Mr. Obama's grand gesture towards Iran during the celebration of Nayrouz. A gesture that Iran has largely shunned amidst continuing abuses of human rights. The choice of Egypt itself, ruled since 1981 by an aging dictator in the process of grooming his son for power, is indicative of this blind pragmatism.

Mr. Obama's speech is definitely a departure from the Bush discourse and is applauded for signaling a sea of change in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Now is the opportune time to engage the Arab Muslim world in a meaningful commitment to the rule of law and fair transparent elections. Mr. Obama needs to further press for good governance, rule of law and accountability in order to increase the scope of individual and group liberties.

It would be a grave mistake if the US abandons those ideals which have taken a back seat to political and strategic calculations in the making of U.S. foreign policy past or present. The past has taught us that continued political oppression was key in fanning the flames of those bent on setting Islam on a collision course with the rest of humanity. Mr. Obama you have the Muslim world in the palm of your hands but only for a short time, I hope you can seize on this immense capital but daunting responsibility.


Vera said...

First of all, it is quite an honor that you were asked to make a comment and I commend you on that.

I understand your pursuit to improve human rights in that region is the guiding principle of your comment. But, I also understand and side with Obama's cautious treading of these politically explosive waters and his respectful diplomatic approach to dealing with the cultural and religious traditions that governed these muslim countries for centuries.

There is, of course, a sizable diversity in political structure from more transparent and democratic Morocco and Turkey to complete autocratic regimes - you are the expert on the issue. But the main point that I would like this administration to keep in mind is that we will support the changes when they come from within, or as you quoted “should reflect the will of the people”. Their view of democracy is different than yours and mine. We have a luxury of being educated in this country. We know a higher standard, and eventually, with the spread of technology and the world becoming “flatter,” “our” democratic principles will infiltrate those places where people did not know they were violating human rights, unaware of political transparency, or the rule of secular law. Hey, the complete transparency of the government happens to be a fairly new concept here too 

The fact that the Iranians are protesting the lack of transparency of the election process, but not the underlining cause of it – the political structure of the Islamic state that inhibits the democratic mechanisms – is interesting in itself. The religion plays a pivotal role in that region and cannot be dismissed which is why Obama is so rightfully cautious. Give the guy a break, will you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Vera for your well-constructed comment. I still claim that what I am calling for and other scholars is not democracy as you construe it in the liberal western form. All of us are conscious of the difficulties realted to that. What we are calling for are minimal conditions that could enable the transition to a dginified system of government. I grew up and was educated in this country, and have been in contact with leaders from both civil society and the opposition. We all believe that the will to change is there, but stifled by the state. The international community can exert pressure in order for that impulse for change towards transaparency ( not recent in my estimation as it is one of the core principles of pluralist societies in which rule of law is supreme). Even in Islamic societies that you talk about, there is no contradiction between what we call for and the principles of the religion. I am not talking about secularism here, just basic principles that could result in a change from within. The same change that you are advocating. I feel we can talk about change from within, but we definitely need a climate for it to happen. That climate is aided by a concerted effort from the international community, US included.

Anonymous said...

I think the original author was right on target with his comments.

Obama's speech was undoubtedly needed and the overarching conciliatory nature of the content expected. However, the 3,000 pound gorilla in the room remains: American foreign policy continues to eschew principles for short-sighted political gains. Hopefully our leaders will cease viewing the Middle East as their chessboard in the legacy of Mahan sooner rather than later.