Eyeball to Eyeball With Islam, Obama Does Not Flinch

abdullahI watched that slender brown man, his hair already going gray after just a few months as President of the United States, telling it like it is in the heart of the Arab world, and I marveled at his courage. He spoke kindly, respectfully, without bravado or bombast. But he was unequivocal in his message. And he must have known that some of the things he said – most of the things he said – would ruffle the feathers of some powerful people.

In his place, I would not have had the guts to go to Cairo and proclaim my commitment to the defense of Israel, for example. But Barack Obama was resolute. America’s bonds with Israel would not be broken, he said. On the other hand, he cautioned Israel’s leaders against allowing settlements in territory captured during the Arab-Israeli War, and he forcefully expressed support for a separate Palestinian state. He knows that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot accept those conditions and remain in power. Netanyahu is facing intense pressure at home to stand firm against ending the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu said this week that his government “will not agree to freeze life in the settlements.” And his opposition to creation of a Palestinian state is well known.

President Obama risked offending some devout Muslims by advocating women’s rights, saying that while women should be allowed to wear traditional garb, they should also be allowed to get an education.

“Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential,” he said. “I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”

He risked offending Arab despots by calling for human rights and democracy, rare commodities in the Muslim world. Yet to some human rights activists, I am sure he did not go far enough, that they will criticize him for being too conciliatory to rulers with abysmal records – rulers like Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. And he risked providing ammunition to the jingoists and xenophobes back home by conceding that America had made mistakes and by quoting freely from the Qur’an. He knew how sly “spin artists” could twist his words to support their lies about his birth place and his religion. He also dared to bring up America’s own human rights failings – the history of slavery and segregation, the still-existing inequalities faced by women in the workplace. I can only imagine how conservative “patriots” will respond to that public airing of America’s dirty laundry.   

But President Obama let the chips fall where they may; his mission was to tell the truth as he sees it. And that’s just what he did – he told the truth without fear or favor. The underlying message was one of peace and partnership – without prejudice. The olive branch was extended to friend and foe alike, but with the understanding that certain principles would be paramount – principles like religious freedom, respect for tradition as well as progress, and the pursuit of human rights. For above all, Barack Obama is a fair-minded man. He is also a very brave man. In his place, I might not have had the nerve to go to Cairo and make that speech.

Powerful interests have a stake in stoking conflict and hate throughout the world. By seeking to promote peace and understanding, President Obama threatens to eliminate a source of enormous profits to these interests. You can be sure they will not let this happen without a fight.

Photo shows President Obama holding a gift he received from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah during a meeting on his way to Cairo.