Friday, June 05, 2009

PBS News Hour Panel on Obama's Speech to Arabs & Muslims in Cairo

U.S. President Barack Obama in Cairo, Egypt

Introductory Comment: Perusing the web site of PBS' excellent evening news program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer to check their reporting on President Obama's recent speech in Cairo to the Arab and Muslim worlds, I was pleasantly surprised and indeed very happy and excited to see a dear mentor of mine, from my undergraduate days until today, on an excellent panel discussion. This mentor, who has taught me so much about the Middle East and Islamicate worlds and particularly their complex histories, is Prof. Sumaiya A. Hamdani of George Mason University, a specialist in medieval Islamic and Middle Eastern history, and one of the few experts on Isma'ili Shi'ism and early Shi'ism. I present selected quotes from the transcript and link to the video, with a link to the full transcript, with great pleasure.

Palestinian security officers from Fatah security forces to Palestinian President (though his term is expired) Mahmoud Abbas watch President Barack Obama's speech at their headquarters in the West Bank town of Jenin,Thursday, June 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more on the president's speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for that, we get four views.

Rami Khouri is an editor-at-large of the Daily Star Newspaper in Lebanon. He's also the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Al Jazeera Arabic.

Sumaiya Hamdani is an associate professor of history at George Mason University, where she founded the school's Islamic studies program and served as its director until last year.

And As'ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus.

Thank you, all four, for being with us.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Abderrahim Foukara here in Washington, what did you hear?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA, Al Jazeera Arabic: Well, what I heard, just like we heard from Rami, on the level of the rhetoric, the philosophy of the speech, if you will, which is, "I've come to you, to the Muslim world, to try and repair whatever damage has been done in relations between the Muslim world and the United States not just over the past eight years, but over a long period of time."

That, obviously, rang very true. And it got very positive reactions to it, whether in the Middle East proper, if you will, or in other parts of the Muslim world, like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the level of policy, it was always expected that many of the things that he would say would be controversial. He said some very positive things about Israel and Palestine, which matters a lot to Arabs and Muslims. The issue of Palestine in the Muslim world was seen as being almost synonymous with his call for better relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

But you get people in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan, for example, who say, "OK, he's come to us with his message of peace, but there are U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there are civilians being killed there by American forces."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he addressed -- and these were items, Sumaiya Hamdania -- again, you're based here in Washington -- that he has addressed before, but today much more emphasis, much more detail.

SUMAIYA HAMDANI, George Mason University: I was very impressed with the speech, actually, and I was impressed with the speech for a lot of reasons. I think, first and foremost, the quality of the speech was one that was very different from the previous administration and, I think, for most administrations, U.S. administrations. Obama was speaking to an audience, as opposed to at an audience. And...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: By which I mean that he engaged the audience in terms that resonated with them. For example, whereas most U.S. presidents and policymakers have spoken in terms of freedom and democracy, much of his speech was really about justice, which is a concept around which political discourse is built in many over other parts of the world, including the Islamic world.

And I think that he also was able to engage the audience in terms of what was particular to their culture and heritage. But at the same time, what made it universal, in the introduction to his speech...

Obama with Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdullah ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn al-Sa'ud


RAMI KHOURI: There are major contradictions. And there's others that I can add to his list. For instance, only mentioning Iran in the context of nuclear bombs and threats, talking about the Islamic world, and the first of his seven points is violent extremism. I mean, if you're really serious about engaging people, you don't make violent extremism the first point you raise in terms of dealing with the Islamic world.

So there are several issues that the Americans still have to resolve. And the schizophrenia the U.S. is still following is clear, in terms of trying to engage Iran and Syria, but boycott Hamas and Hezbollah. That doesn't work.

So there's still confusion in Washington, but there's also a signal that Washington is trying to deal with this confusion and sort it out and to engage on a more mutually beneficial terms. And mutual rights and mutual interests, I think, was the key phrase in his speech.

If he actually pursues that, then we have, perhaps, something useful starting to happen. But there's no evidence of it yet in a serious way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sumaiya Hamdani, what about this? Do the contradictions override anything positive out of this speech?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: I would -- my colleagues are putting Obama's speech or putting his feet to the fire much more than I would. I listened to the speech as a speech by an American president. I listened to it for what kind of rationale he would provide for the kinds of policies -- rather than specific policies, but the rationale for the kinds of policies he would pursue. And I listened to the speech, I have to admit, as an American Muslim.

And on all of those levels, I found the speech impressive, in the sense that, again, he engaged the audience in terms that made sense to them.

I think with regard to, for example, the Palestinian issue, the fact that a U.S. president talked about the humiliation that Palestinians suffer under occupation -- I think those words are very important, because those are words the Palestinians have used to talk about their experience as displaced people, as refugees, as people trapped in the kind of Bantustans that exist in the occupied territories. And American presidents have not addressed them in terms that they themselves have used to describe their condition.

Professor Sumaiya A. Hamdani


JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Hamdani, that's a theme we're hearing from the four of you, and from several of you, and from other critics around, that there should be more concrete action. But what more concrete could have come today than what the president said, realistically?

SUMAIYA HAMDANI: I think realistically not much. I mean, as he himself said in a speech, one speech does not make a big difference.

But I think what he did do in the context of a speech -- and an important one at that -- was to engage his audience and create this potential for common understanding and mutual interest.

One of the things that impressed me about the speech was that, unlike many political pundits and many authors of the contemporary scene in the Islamic world, he attempted to transcend what has been a kind of accepted "othering" of Islam.

He talked about the sort of debt that world civilization has to Islam. And in doing that, I think he transcended the sort of clash of civilization paradigm that has become so accepted.

And I think, in talking about Islam as to, quote, "a part of America," he went beyond the "othering" of Muslims in the West, which I think was also very important.


Full transcript and streaming video available HERE.

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