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Mr. Obama Goes to Cairo

June 4, 2009

This morning I woke to the calm, measured tones of President Obama giving a speech addressed to “the Muslim world” at Cairo University in Egypt. It was a good way to wake up. I wasn’t able to listen to the whole speech this morning, as I had to get ready to go to work. But I just now, at lunch, read the entire speech, which can be found here; I highly recommend that everyone give it a look.

The speech is pure genius. Its purpose was, as the president said, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

If the previous administration’s mission statement was, “You are either with us or against us,” here the president was laying out a new mission statement for the U.S. and the Muslim world, one that Obama has been preaching for many years now: We are all in this together. In his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama—then a state senator from Illinois, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate—eloquently expressed this view as it related to Americans. He said:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?”

What Obama was advocating today at Cairo University was a politics of hope for the entire world; what Bush and his administration advocated for the past eight years, and what former Vice-President Cheney, along with other outspoken Republicans, continue to advocate today is a politics of fear and cynicism.

The president made his case in part by using a very powerful rhetorical tool when communicating with people of faith: by deploying key passages from that group’s chosen holy book—in this case, the Koran. For example, in one part of the speech that dealt with terrorism, Obama noted that, “The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.”

This rhetorical trick didn’t seem cynical because Obama, of course, has personal experience with Islam. As he said in today’s speech, “Part of this conviction [‘that the interests we share as human beings are more powerful than the forces that drive us apart’] is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”

But the finest deployment of scripture came at the end, when Obama quoted from the holy books of all three Abrahamic faiths. He said:

“We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us, ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’ The Holy Bible tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’ The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”

I agree wholeheartedly. God’s vision is for all people to live together in peace; not for all people to be Christians; not for all nations to be democracies; not for one nation to dominate any other. I think that all men and women of faith—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other—should be able to get behind that sentiment. Provided, that is, that they truly follow and believe in the teachings they claim to.

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