Weekly Insights and Analysis

Sweet Words in Cairo

June 10, 2009

By Rosita Armytage

“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



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