For obvious reasons the United States and Muslims around the world needed a new beginning that would be “based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and ... based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.” This new era would emphasize common values such as justice, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings, rather than accentuating and letting the voice of some extremist groups' far-fetched arguments point toward differing opinions.
Nevertheless, many mutual negative stereotypes have been infused into the minds and veins of people and cannot be eradicated overnight. It has now become very difficult to portray what “Islam actually is” and, similarly, what “the United States stands for.” Obama rightly explained the main reason for the tension that the whole world suffers today: “Tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims and a Cold War in which Muslim majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” Words are important, especially when they are uttered by a leading figure of the West by way of confessing that the West has had a role in this outcome.
Nonetheless, Muslims should also do their best to overcome the feeling of failure and weakness vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Words are important, but they should not be used to divert reform attempts by Muslim politicians in Muslim lands aimed at reaching a healthy democracy. This was the main theme of Obama's speech in Cairo: to encourage Muslim leaders to do more to make their respected countries feel strengthened and powerful -- so much so that they should be able to quote from both the Old Testament and New Testament freely when they deliver a speech in an American university because of their confidence both in themselves and in their own religion. Unless they feel equal with their counterparts they will remain inferior forever. Words are important. The president did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Since words are important, Muslim leaders should also work hard to eliminate terrorist activities by providing better social, economic, and political conditions and stop waffling with meaningless and nonsensical words.
The global audience watched a US president with the middle name of Hussain at Cairo University delivering his second speech to the Muslim world -- after his speech in the Turkish Parliament -- that contained solutions to global problems, not just to problems between the United States and Muslim nations. He chose seven topics for his speech and provided convincing arguments for each of them. The first topic was about violent extremism and acknowledged the injustice done to Muslim nations over the last 200 years. Only a strong president would admit past mistakes. The Turkish prime minister is definitely on the way to becoming a strong leader, as he has acknowledged some of the past injustices done to his country's minorities, which were taboo subjects until now.
The second topic was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He first stated the firm commitment of the United States to Israel. Yet he did not hesitate to warn the Israeli government about establishing new settlements and he encouraged them to come to terms with the Palestinian state and stop making the lives of Palestinians' intolerable.
Thirdly, he addressed the issue of nuclear weapons. For the first time an American president has accepted the right of nations, including Iran, to peaceful proliferation of nuclear power. He also accepted criticism over who would decide which country should have nuclear weapons, as the United States has seen itself as the only authority on this global problem.
The fourth issue was democracy and its promotion by the United States, particularly in regard to Muslim countries. From the speech it is clear that from now on the United States will not impose the universal values of human rights on countries by violent means, as in the case of the Iraq War. Stressing the importance of democratic values is not enough, as the US administrations have long supported undemocratic governments. That is why it is so important and meaningful that the president did not mention or refer to the Egyptian government, but addressed the real people of Egypt. I believe that he deliberately ignored the host country's government, which means the United States administration will be more conscious of not giving the impression that they will support pseudo-democratic countries from now on.
The fifth topic was the issue of religious freedom both in the United States and in Muslim countries. The West may come to appreciate the Muslim experience of both Andalusia and the Ottoman past in dealing with their religious minorities. Here the bulk of the work falls on the shoulders of the Muslim administrations to show the whole world how they continue their tradition of tolerance. The richness of the concepts of convivencia (co-existence, living together) and the millet system (autonomous religious communities) should be taken out of the past and implemented in today's troublesome world.
The sixth issue was about women's rights. He first acknowledged the erroneous view of some liberals who claim that a woman who covers her hair is less equal. Then he combined this issue with religious freedom and he implicitly referred to the decision of an Oklahoma court to support the right of a female student to wear religious attire at school. Unfortunately, many courts in Muslim countries have denied this right to students in the name of militant secularism in an effort to imitate the West.
The last topic was more about specifics in terms of economic development and cooperation with the Muslim world. He gave some details of how the United States could help and support economically fragile countries. He also said that he would personally be engaged in developing opportunities with trade organizations from the Muslim world by organizing an entrepreneurship summit.
The honesty, resoluteness and down-to-earth approach in the 55-minute speech have earned Obama much praise across the world, since the global community had been expecting such a firm proposition to bridge gaps and open doors to global peace and understanding. He has shown us that “another world is possible.”
*Ali Murat Yel is an instructor in Fatih University's sociology department.