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.