Historian Kenneth Cuno teaches the history of the Middle East and his research focuses on the social history of Egypt.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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As part of a trip this week to the Middle East and Europe, President Obama spoke in Cairo on Thursday (June 4), giving what was billed as a major address to the Muslim world. Historian Kenneth Cuno teaches the history of the Middle East and his research focuses on the social history of Egypt. Cuno was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Why this speech and why now?
During his campaign the president said he would address the Muslim world from one of its capital cities to say the U.S. is not at war with Islam, to clarify our values and interests, and to enlist their support against terrorism.
Did the president say what he needed to? What do you think he accomplished?
His January interview with al-Arabiya TV and his April speech in Turkey developed those three themes, but today's speech in Cairo was more ambitious, addressing several "sources of tension" between the United States and Muslims. He discussed at greatest length confronting "violent extremism in all its forms" and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He asserted the incompatibility of "violent extremism" with all religious traditions, and called for its repudiation. He included the Arab states as players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called on all three sides to make the necessary concessions for peace. He also spoke eloquently of Jewish as well as Palestinian suffering without privileging either. I was intrigued by his discussion of "economic development and opportunity," in which he announced a number of initiatives to promote education, and technological and medical development. This part of the speech drew no attention in the post-speech commentary but it signals a serious policy initiative.
Why the choice of Cairo as the site for this highly publicized speech?
Some criticized the choice because the Mubarak regime in Egypt is undemocratic and has a poor human-rights record. Egypt, however, plays a constructive role in promoting regional security and Arab-Israeli peace, which are top priorities for the U.S. Cairo is a cultural and religious center of long standing. Obama balanced the symbolism of the venue by speaking at Cairo University, a secular, co-educational institution, but with co-sponsorship by al-Azhar, the ancient Islamic university, and avoiding the Egyptian parliament, whose elections are notoriously rigged. The White House insisted on inviting Israel's ambassador, Iran's representatives, Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians, and intellectuals opposed to normalization with Israel. Also invited was political dissident Ayman Nour, Mubarak's main opponent in the last presidential election, who was jailed until recently.
What about the tone of the speech?
There was careful attention to language. Instead of "terrorism" he called on Muslims to reject "violent extremism," thereby abandoning Bush era rhetoric in favor of the common Arabic term - "extremist." He described differences between the United States and Muslims as "tensions." And he used remarkably non-threatening language. Israeli-Palestinian peace will be pursued "with all the patience that the task requires." Progress in Iranian relations will be sought "with courage, rectitude and resolve." There was no "or else," no carrots-and-sticks.
The speech was billed as an address to the Muslim world, but should we see it that way, as one large community?
Although there is a sense of belonging to one community, it is in fact a very diverse world. We should avoid thinking of the "Muslim world" as monolithic. This was also an opportunity to educate Americans about Muslims: They share the same values as Christians and Jews, they have a distinguished history of educational and scientific achievement, and there is a prosperous Muslim community in the U.S.
Obama has felt it necessary to say that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, and he stressed that again in Cairo. Why?
It is important to say because that accusation has been made, and the Bush administration did not distance itself adequately from the bigotry expressed by some public figures. Middle Easterners, both Muslim and Christian, experience America's dominant influence in the region in multiple ways and they don't like it. This has nothing to do with religion. We have been seen as supporting autocratic regimes and acting with hypocrisy on the Palestinian question. Our stance on human rights looked hollow after a decade of sanctions followed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and Abu Ghraib. Re-outlawing torture, closing Guantanamo, disengaging from Iraq and evenhandedness between Israel and the Palestinians - none of these are religious issues.
Who or what are the real adversaries?
The immediate adversary is al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who are at war with nearly every Muslim state as well as the U.S. They are a dangerous and sophisticated criminal organization, and they do not represent Islam, which condemns murder, like all religions. Obama invoked these common values. Beyond that, the real adversaries are poverty, ignorance, corruption and cynicism. The importance of supporting the struggle against those adversaries should not be underestimated.