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Walid Phares: 15 Questions on Obama's Speech

Saturday, 06 Jun 2009 12:09 PM

By Walid Phares

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Perhaps the most challenging task for analysts and commentators to accomplish after having listened to President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo (addressed to the "Muslim world") is to know how to read it, understand the links between the points he made, capture the arguments his speech writers inserted, and thus analyze the text as a major policy change since 9/11.

In short, I would recommend for readers to establish a "map of the speech" before venturing to its various exotic suggestions and hints. Evidently, each political constituency in America, the region, and the international community has its priorities and will jump to the part it deems most pressing, either exciting or depressing.

However, I suggest looking at the whole idea of addressing the "Muslim world," or as the president coined it often in his speech, "the Muslims" (two different things), and understand where Obama is coming from and going to. To help in this analytical task — and to simplify what seems to be complex — I propose to raise the following questions and address them separately in the debate before re-sowing them as one bloc of ideas. Here are the ones I identify as building blocks of the Obama "Muslim platform" drawn from his speech:

1. Is the equation of mending relations between a nation state, America, and a whole civilization, Islam, rational? Is it academically sound to put one country and fifty two other countries in one framework of relationships? Are all 52 Muslim countries in one basket and America in another? Who framed this equation?

2. The speech mentioned "violent extremists" several times as the foe to contain and isolate. Is there not a clearer explanation of what "violent extremism" is and who are the followers of such a behavior? Is about violence only? Are all those who practice violence, from household abuse, gangsterism to mass murder part of one group? Of course not. So what constitutes extremism? Do "violent extremists" have an ideology, a platform, goals, strategies? Are they the Jihadists that the whole world knows about? Why wouldn't President Obama simply name them as such?

3. The speech argued that Americans were "traumatized" because of 9/11 and thus their view of Islam changed. Why would their view of a religion change because of an attack perpetrated by 19 hijackers? Who is drawing this conclusion? In short, if indeed Americans had a change in perception after 9/11, what was their perception before? Is this reality or is it the framing of the war of ideas by the apologist elite? Why is there a complex of guilt forced on Americans?

4. The speech argued directly and indirectly that, because -- because of 9/11, the U.S. government did things it was not supposed to do constitutionally (or ethically). Among these breaches Mr. Obama mentioned the opening of Guantanamo. The question is: Is opening a detention center in a state of war (even not declared officially) in which active elements of the armed opponents are detained an act aimed against an entire religion? Who said so and who framed it as such?

5. The speech delved in the claim that Islam "has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality." Although it is perfectly legitimate for academics to engage in such research and draw the conclusions they wish, can an elected president in a liberal democracy make philosophical assertions in the field of controversial and debated conflicts — not part of his or her national realm?

6. The speech -- rightly so -- praised the integration of Muslim-Americans in their own country. But did the president mention why a large number of American citizens fled many Muslim countries, including Muslim-American citizens?

7. The speech -- rightly so -- rejected stereotypes about Muslims and America. However, who made these stereotypes, who propagated the narrative that they exist and who is indoctrinating segments of societies about the latter?

8. The president gladly (after significant messaging preceding the speech) mentioned Darfur. But why did he never call it genocide? Moreover, what is to be done about it? The speech was generous about what Israel and Hamas must do, and about U.S. forthcoming spending in the region, but left the audiences clueless about what to do about the first genocide of the 21st century. Why?

9. The speech called Iraq's war one of choice but stated that Iraqis are better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Doesn't this statement need more explanation? Is the conclusion that it is better to leave people under tyrannies even if they are subjected to mass killing? As for Afghanistan, the president didn't mention the Taliban once. Who are NATO, the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan facing off with? Is it normal that the one Jihadi force that protected al-Qaida as it launched the 9/11 attacks and is on the offensive against democracies in two Muslim countries is not identified in the speech to the Muslim world?

10. The speech reasserted — logically — a U.S. standing policy of supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, if Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed on such principle already in 1993, who then is obstructing the process? Why wasn't the obstructing force, Hamas and Iran, named as such?

11. The speech granted Iran a right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, but who denied it to the Iranian people to begin with? The question is about the Iranian regime's expansionist agenda in the region not the type of technology. Nuclear capacities in the hands of a terror regime will become dangerous and armed. Is it not about the intentions of the regime?

12. The speech mentioned that there has been a controversy about democracy in the region, particularly because of the Iraq war. The question is: What is that controversy about, and thus where does the United States stand in this debate? Are there different values for different countries and cultures when it comes to freedom? What are they?

13. The speech advocated religious freedoms. The question is who is breaching them? The president mentioned the Maronites and the Copts but didn't explain who is causing them harm.

14. The speech addressed women's rights, and the president rejected one Western position in the debate about Muslim women's freedom assessment, and asserted the rights of some women to wear the Hijab unquestioned. However, why didn't he list the grievances of Muslim women who do not want to wear the Hijab and are forced to do so? The president argued that the real issue in women's status is education. But isn't their education a political and fundamental right? How can women practice the right to education if they cannot practice their freedom to choose it?

15. It is wonderful that the speech announced that the United States will spend money to help Muslim communities develop on multiple continents. But why didn't the president ask the rich elite in these countries to share the burden, if not to assume it fully? Why would a nation in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere be footing the bill of development in remote regions where the financial establishment is buying shares of and controlling the American economy?

These are only few questions about a speech that will be studied and used by the current administration, its opposition, future administrations, regimes in the region, the Jihadists, and dissidents alike for many years to come. It is essential that the students of such text focus on the essence and draw the proper conclusions. Indeed words matter, especially in the midst of a raging war of ideas, even if the author of the speech and the speech writers' main goal is precisely to end such a war.

Dr. Walid Phares is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.

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