While I didn't hear them myself, President Obama's words to the Muslim world yesterday were spot on -- the promises of "humility and restraint", that the U.S. "will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people", the rejection "as false the choice between our safety and our ideals". The direct appeal to the Islamic world rung true, and refreshingly new:
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
This struck me as a remarkably mature, frank, and effective appeal to a suspicious but hopeful Islamic world to engage respectfully, as equals and not as supplicants. The focus on the silencing of dissent was perfectly chosen -- protecting "bill of rights" freedoms of speech and assembly are precisely the place for the U.S. to take a strong, principled stand.
Obama's inauguration dominated the front pages of Arab newspapers, editorials ranged from effusive to cautiously welcoming. Tellingly, many of the papers (including the Saudi pan-Arab paper al-Hayat) led with his promise to begin responsibly withdrawing from Iraq -- clearly words that the Arab observers were keenly looking to hear. Al-Jazeera reported that 38 Islamic figures (including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Rashed Ghannouchi, and other prominent personalities) offered an immediate response to his invitation to a new way of interaction between the U.S. and the Islamic world. Even al-Quds al-Arabi, a newspaper staunchly opposed to U.S. foreign policy, allowed that Obama's inauguration demonstrates that for all of America's flaws and hypocrisies, democracy remains the best form of government.
Deeds must follow the words, for any of this to matter -- skepticism is high and resentments running hot over Gaza. During the seemingly endless period of "one president at a time," Arab observers pounced on every piece of evidence no matter how slim to prove that nothing would really change. It will take some real effort to begin to demonstrate the credibility and sincerity of this new way forward. But this is a good start.
Meanwhile, just for fun, a friend in Khartoum sends along this picture of the just-opened Barack Obama Salon:
Barack Obama Salon, Khartoum (Sudan).
Offer your proposed captions or extended metaphors in the comment section!
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.