I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Barack Obama’s magnificent speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo on Thursday, 6/4. (Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_889oBKkNU). He said all of the right things. He showed a surprisingly strong recognition and respect for Islam, Muslim people, their traditions and their values. He gave Israel the historical recognition that so often grounds its rhetoric of defiance, but he gave Palestinians an actual acknowledgement of their misery, saying their plight is “intolerable.” This was some very bold truth, especially coming from the mouth of the leader of the most powerful Western nation on earth.
At times I was ready to quip with my own issues with some of the topics he brought up, but to mention them at all was a spectacular breakthrough in the global discourse of justice that Barack Obama now is operating in so enthusiastically. For example, he acknowledged the US role in overthrowing the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister in the 1950s – before denouncing the extremist government that followed. And if you listen carefully, he also acknowledged that some people felt the US “deserved” the 911 attacks, before denouncing those people too.
I thought that admission was incredible. Amiri Baraka lost his title as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (whatever that means) because he put forth similar sentiments. Under Bush 2.0’s Patriot Act, it has essentially been a federal crime for some to speak words that amounted to blaming the US for fostering the sentiments behind 911.
The US right wing and the “Muslim extremists” have served each other’s hateful interests for most of this decade. Obama is navigating an environment where the haters on both sides had been setting the terms of engagement, but now he’s the one blowing up things. It was astonishing, stupefying, and uplifting to hear such magnanimity and humility from the leader of the “free world.”
There was also an implication in this: that if you say ‘Muslims are people too, there are just some wackos you have to watch out for,” then what does that say about us here in the majority Christian US? That’s right, we have wackos too that are killing doctors, shooting unarmed black people on subways, and voting into law marriage discrimination too. Okay he didn’t go there, but I did.
I also found it ironic that it was Obama’s Muslim elements that almost derailed his Presidential campaign are now some of his greatest assets. From the right wing pundits emphasizing his middle name of Hussein, to falsely accusing him of taking his Congressional oath on a Qur’an. In his speech, Obama made prideful mention of his Muslim heritage, his childhood in Indonesia, and the fact that the first American in the House of Representatives (Keith Ellison, D-MN) took his oath on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.
Yes it is all superficial rhetoric from Obama. But from the point of view of this new agenda of respectful global engagement, it is more “change” than I could have imagined when I voted for the brother last November. And think about the number of folks considering Islam for themselves that just got pushed over the fence by Obama’s not so subtle endorsement? That is tangible, and beautiful.
His outline for economic redevelopment started to lose me however, because it started to sound like a campaign speech, with a lot of promises. But as it turns out, to me the speech really was a campaign speech: a speech in which Barack Obama was campaigning for President of the World. But not through crude brute force in the way Bush 2.0 tried to do it, but through smooth sentences, heartfelt sympathies and much cultural affinity.
George Bush 2.0 saw American “Exceptionalism” in terms of its ability to use brute force, tired colonial objectives, and blatant white supremacist values to rule the world.
Barack Obama is a paradigm shifter. He is changing the center of the world’s discourse away from America’s exceptionalism in terms of economic & military domination, towards the fancier gloss of morality, a global community, and the myth of “opportunity.”
Obama did this during the campaign, by fusing his own biracial and immigrant narrative into the larger American mythos of immigration and opportunity, something many of us felt were primarily the pervue of European migrants. Barack Obama has integrated the American Dream in many ways, and now he’s spreading that hype – that hope – to the rest of the world.
It feels great. So did the election. But we also now have some of the worst urban violence in decades, and an economy on the brink, so the brother still has some work to do. But if he wants to be President of the World, I’ll vote for him.