Allow me to be naive for a moment here. I know President Obama’s Cairo speech didn’t really say anything new; it didn’t set out specific policy initiatives; he gave it in a country run by a totalitarian regime. But part of me wants to stand up and applaud in my pajamas watching the speech on YouTube. It was a myth-busting tour de force aimed directly at the worldwide Muslim public. America is not and never will be at war with Islam. All religions share a commitment to peace. One billion Muslims are bigger than a few extremists. Israel is not going anywhere; but the Palestinian plight is intolerable. The Holocaust was real and unspeakably horrific; but the humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security. I’m not surprised by what Obama had to say. The daring part was how he said it. The day before, when he visited the Saudis, Obama’s use of the word “Shoukran”, Arabic for “Thank you” made headlines. How did basic courtesy get to be world news? Wouldn’t you say “Gracias” in Mexico? Incensed bloggers resuscitated the claim that Obama is a “secret Muslim”; he secretly speaks Arabic! (Never mind that the word for “thank you” has nothing to do with Islam.)
But Obama wasn’t letting the flak get in his way. Gone are the campaign days where he had to distance himself from anything resembling Islam. In Cairo, he not only quoted the Qur’an, he even pronounced it “Curr-ahn” not “Ko-ran.” He praised his hosts, Cairo University and Al-Azhar in the extravagant tradition of Arab hospitality. His “Salaam Aleikum” (“peace be upon you”) came out sounding dignified and respectful, about as far away from George Bush’s Spanish as it’s possible to get.
These niceties are actually not small things. I realized this when, in the course of making a point about the compatibility of Islam and progress, Obama mentioned “the Prophet Muhammad” and then added, reflexively, the customary “Peace be upon him,” before making his point. But the crowd applauded spontaneously at that “Peace be upon him;” clearly for them that was the point.
Mentioning the name of the Prophet Muhammad in the Middle East without adding “peace be upon him”–even in English, even by a Christian–is tantamount to walking up to Buckingham Palace and asking where you can go to meet “Liz.” It’s just rude. But the applause of the audience clearly indicated that this simple lack-of-rudeness was surprising, welcome, appreciated. They had grown accustomed to a much blunter level of discourse, one that did not even try to speak their language.
Sure, the applause of a Cairo crowd does not indicate instant peace in the Middle East. But we have to start somewhere. In this context–as in Obama’s landmark speech on race during the campaign–a speech has the potential to be more than just a speech. It can actually be a living, breathing example of a new way of thinking.