Sweet Words in Cairo
June 10, 2009
“No American president has ever gone out of his way to reach out to the Muslim world in the way that President Obama has. We applaud that. But our applause is discreet rather than rapturous for these are as yet mere words.” – From ‘Rhetoric and Reality’, The News (Pakistan), June 5, 2009.
The substance of President Obama’s speech was not new – but the act of an American president coming to Egypt, addressing the world’s Muslims, and making a public commitment to closer cooperation and understanding between the United States and the Muslim world, was.
Obama worked to create a speech that would resonate with one billion Muslims spread across every country of the world, with diverse religious practices and beliefs – so it is not surprising that his speech had a level of abstraction and didn’t involve an announcement of any concrete policy or an indication of how he would implement his commitments to the Muslim world.
What I found particularly interesting was Obama’s reference to “partnership between America and Islam” – a statement that recognizes that just as America represents a political and social system, so too does the religion of Islam. He spoke of the U.S. needing to improve relations with Islam as an entity, and not only with Muslim-majority countries, treating the religion of Islam as a kind of political partner that America needs to collaborate with.
By doing this, President Obama moved beyond the strong adherence to the separation of religion and state that American leaders have held to, despite the reality that in many countries, including our own, these boundaries have often become blurred. In many Muslim communities, the boundary between religion and politics is often almost non-existent. Imams and other Muslim leaders not only provide guidance on faith, they are called upon to mediate disputes, to determine the distribution of community resources, and to sanction or condone appropriate social behavior and interaction. In many instances, senior religious leaders double as policy makers, governors, and political advisors. And Obama’s speech was partly an appeal to these very leaders – recognizing that their support is vital in forming the opinions of their congregations and soliciting their support for a cooperative relationship with the US.
Obama’s statement that “Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life” seems to have been well-received by millions of Muslims across the world. But it has also upped the stakes, and his government is going to have to work hard to translate these aspirations into effective foreign policy.
Rosita MacDonald is The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Program Officer in Washington, D.C., where she coordinates the Women and Islam program. She can be reached at [email protected].
About our blog, In AsiaIn Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.
In Asia is posted and distributed every Wednesday evening, Pacific Time and is accessible via email and RSS. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].
ContactFor questions about In Asia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].
The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223
THE LATEST ACROSS ASIA
Thomson Reuters Foundation: Nepal quake survivors struggle with debt, raising trafficking fears
July 26, 2016
Asia Foundation Supports 2016 Korean Film and Culture Workshop
July 22, 2016
Asia Foundation Trustees Participate in World Peace Forum in Beijing
July 20, 2016
Asia Foundation Convenes “Afghanistan Going Forward” Conference
July 14, 2016